Autism speech patterns is an intriguing subject as the way people speak plays a major role in conveying emotion and meaning to others. If a child on the spectrum struggles with tone, rhythm and pitch, the intention behind their words can sometimes be misunderstood.
A neurodivergent friend told me about an interesting interview question recently. Her prospective employer, aware of her condition, asked whether her personality shone on paper or in person. She didn’t find the question offensive at all, she answered: “Paper,” without any hesitation.
For many people, especially those with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), atypical speech patterns interfere with social communication and interaction. Neurotypical society places enormous value on tone, inflection, speed and pattern of speech to convey meaning and emotion. Autistic individuals, who sometimes speak in a flat tone or with an atypical pitch, may be misunderstood or even shunned when they don’t adhere to expected speech patterns. Research (Depape et al., 2012) suggests impaired speech patterns like “abnormal” use of prosody could impact social communication, leading to difficulty making and keeping friends. It could also affect a person’s employment prospects.
The phrase big deal is an interesting example of the use of tone when thinking about autism. It’s a comment used in a sarcastic or ironic way with such regularity, it’s now mostly used to say something is not that significant or important. To convey this meaning, the phrase has to be said in a specific way, using the correct pattern of speech. Adhering to such unwritten speech rules may be an actual big deal for autistic individuals—especially as many on the spectrum tend to interpret and use speech literally.
Many people with autism spectrum disorder have unusual speech patterns. Monotonic, a sing-song voice, and machine-like are some of the ways in which atypical speech patterns in people with autism are described (Bonneh et al., 2011). Unusual or abnormal in the sense that it’s not the expected way of utilizing speech according to neurotypical standards.
In this article, before investigating ways to facilitate enhanced communication in children on the spectrum, some of the autism speech patterns commonly found in children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) will be examined.
Atypical speech patterns in ASD
Recognizing that autistic individuals may speak in an atypical manner is very important. A child with asperger’s (which is no longer used as an official diagnostic term) may possess an impressive vocabulary, but they may speak in a flat tone which sounds almost robotic. This may be interpreted as insensitivity or lack of interest in specific social situations—especially in situations where there is little awareness of autism and other neurodevelopmental conditions.
Awareness about atypical speech patterns in ASD is not only beneficial for early intervention and therapy purposes, but also to educate and foster understanding of the different ways neurodivergent individuals may utilize speech and language. If children are aware that a classmate speaks differently, and they understand the reason for the difference, they may be more accepting of such differences. For example, when an autistic child repeats what a classmate is saying it may be construed in a negative way (perhaps as teasing), that is until awareness of echolalia and other atypical speech pattern usage is understood.
Echolalia (repeating others’ words or sentences) and late onset of first words are some of the better known communication challenges associated with autism, but lesser known difficulties like abnormal prosody, idiosyncratic speech, and cluttering may also impact speech.
Prosody: the intonation, rhythm and stress patterns of speech
According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary prosody is the “rhythmic and intonational aspect of language”. Rhythm and changing pitch may not seem like the most important part of speech, but prosody plays a major role in how speech and language is perceived and understood.
The way speech rises and falls may indicate our emotional state. Furthermore, prosody is involved in stress and emphasis of certain words, and conveying sarcasm and humor. Prosody also helps to identify whether speech is used to express a general observation, a command or question.
Research (Filipe et al., 2018) found a significant link between prosodic skills and divided attention, working memory and other executive functions. The authors concluded that their findings may be clinically relevant as challenges with executive functioning and prosodic deficits are characteristics of many neurodevelopmental disorders.
Understanding that many people with autism may have such deficits and different speech patterns means we are more accepting and empathetic about the fact that they may struggle to understand, discern, and reproduce prosody.
One of the core symptoms of autism, restricted/repetitive behaviors and interests can manifest in speech and language as a fixated focus on idiosyncratic topics (Rouhizadeh et al., 2015). Idiosyncratic speech may include using stereotypical or inappropriate words. Kids on the spectrum may speak in a way that assumes the person they’re conversing with knows everything they know—they may discuss the intricacies of a battle pass with their grandmother, who assumes Fortnite refers to a time period.
Speech patterns may also be unusual in a child with autism due to a fluency disorder referred to as cluttering speech. Cluttering makes speech sound fast and/or irregular, phrases are repeated, excessive filler words may be relied on, and pausing patterns may be different from the norm.
For children, such atypical speech and language use may interfere with social interaction. Parents, justifiably, want the best and earliest intervention to address unusual speech patterns and other language deficits. On the other hand, children should feel free to express themselves, to communicate in an “imperfect” or atypical way—preferably in an environment where there is awareness and acceptance of neurodivergence.
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Addressing atypical speech patterns
Cluttering, idiosyncratic speech, echolalia and abnormal prosody may interfere with a child’s ability to communicate meaningfully with peers and caregivers. Without trying to “fix” them, treatment could help with making friends, self-esteem and exerting more control over their environment. When a child’s communication attempts are understood, their wants and needs can be met appropriately.
Most medical professionals prioritize speech-language therapy when a child is diagnosed with autism. The goal of speech-language therapy is to help an autistic individual communicate better and to express themselves more meaningfully. Improved communication skills means kids feel more control, and they are better equipped to socialize and learn.
For nonvocal children the initial aim is to grow communication and find appropriate ways for a child to better express themselves. For other children (with better developed speech and language skills), therapy may address concerns like atonality and the understanding of metaphorical language.
In summary, when addressing autism speech patterns, the goal is to enhance or enable better communication, not to make an autistic child sound and speak like a neurotypical child. If therapy addresses prosody and it encourages the child to speak in a way that helps them feel more understood and connected to their peers it could be helpful. If, on the other hand, therapy seems punitive and leaves the child feeling like they need to be fixed to sound like other children, alternative intervention should be considered.
Deeper understanding, greater acceptance
Studying the different speech patterns in ASD is helpful because it guides the way therapy and intervention is structured to improve social communication. A study (Sturrock et al., 2021) highlights the need for researchers to consult autistic children about the way subtle communication differences impact their lives.
Some of the findings could help tailor the provision of appropriate intervention for autistic children, which may help in social situations, educational settings, when seeking help, and in dealing with emotions. According to the study, insights obtained from autistic children include:
- Subtle communication and language difficulties made it harder for autistic kids to talk to new people, to talk in a group and to make new friends
- It also impacted learning, taking part in activities and searching out help
- Negative emotions resulted from communication issues, and such emotions had far reaching consequences (Sturrock et al., 2021)
The participants in this study were autistic children without intellectual disability. The negative emotions experienced by these children highlights the need for intervention and acceptance of all neurodivergent individuals (verbal and nonvocal) who communicate in atypical ways.
Speech language therapists often speak about the need for communication aids for all autistic individuals, even those who have excellent language and speech abilities. In stressful situations (especially those including sensory overload) speech will be affected; affected at a time when expression of emotion is most needed.
To enable neurodivergent individuals to thrive, we need a world where different ways of speaking and communicating are accepted and better understood. We need to consult autistic individuals to help customize communication intervention and therapy so that rather than trying to “fix” them, it enables the kind of expression and communication skills they need for a better quality of life.
Bonneh, Yoram & Levanon, Yoram & Pardo, Or & Lossos, Lan & Adini, Yael. (2011). Abnormal Speech Spectrum and Increased Pitch Variability in Young Autistic Children. Frontiers in human neuroscience. 4. 237. 10.3389/fnhum.2010.00237.
Depape, A. M., Chen, A., Hall, G. B., & Trainor, L. J. (2012). Use of prosody and information structure in high functioning adults with autism in relation to language ability. Frontiers in psychology, 3, 72. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2012.00072.
Filipe, M. G., Frota, S., & Vicente, S. G. (2018). Executive Functions and Prosodic Abilities in Children With High-Functioning Autism. Frontiers in psychology, 9, 359. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2018.00359.
Merriam-Webster. (n.d.). Prosody. In Merriam-Webster.com dictionary. Retrieved October 21, 2021, from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/prosody.
Rouhizadeh, M., Prud’hommeaux, E., van Santen, J., & Sproat, R. (2015). Measuring idiosyncratic interests in children with autism. Proceedings of the conference. Association for Computational Linguistics. Meeting, 2015, 212–217. https://doi.org/10.3115/v1/p15-2035.
Sturrock, A., Chilton, H., Foy, K., Freed, J., & Adams, C. (2021). In their own words: The impact of subtle language and communication difficulties as described by autistic girls and boys without intellectual disability. Autism. https://doi.org/10.1177/13623613211002047.