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Speech Delay vs Autism: What’s the Difference?

December 7, 2023

You may have noticed that your child isn’t speaking as fluently as other kids their age. Maybe they haven’t even said their first words yet. Your mind keeps thinking of two things: speech delay vs autism. Are they the same thing? Is speech delay one of the earliest signs?

Well, not necessarily. While speech delays, language delays, and learning differences are often a hallmark of ASD, a speech delay alone does not mean a child has autism. So, what are the main differences between speech delay and autism? Let’s start with the basics.

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What is a Speech Delay?

Speech and language delays are common among young children. A child may have a speech or language delay if they are not meeting appropriate developmental milestones typical for their age.

While speech and language delays are often confused and used interchangeably, there are distinguishing characteristics.

Speech refers to how children:

  • verbalize,
  • articulate, and
  • manipulate the sounds used in words.

For example, poor pronunciation of hard-to-say sounds like /s/ and /z/ can make it difficult for them to be understood.

Speech delays can be developmental, meaning your child is following typical speech patterns but at a slower rate than their peers. They can also be due to a speech motor disorder that affects their ability to coordinate their lips, jaw, and tongue.

What is a Language Delay? 

A language delay doesn’t necessarily affect “how” children say things but “what” they say. This is referred to as an expressive language disorder.

These children may be able to pronounce sounds and words perfectly but have trouble forming them into coherent phrases to communicate their ideas. Additionally, a receptive language delay can affect how children process information.

They often struggle with:

  • comprehending what people are trying to say, 
  • learning new vocabulary, and
  • deriving meaning from verbal and written communication.

Is Speech Delay a Sign of Autism?

While speech delay can be a characteristic associated with autism spectrum disorder, it does not necessarily indicate autism on its own. There are various reasons for speech delays, which can be caused by factors such as hearing impairments, developmental issues, or environmental factors.

If you’re worried about your child’s speech or behavior, it’s essential to know that a speech delay doesn’t automatically mean autism. Talking to a healthcare professional or developmental specialist for a thorough evaluation and guidance is recommended.

Speech Delay vs. Autism: Is There a Difference?

Typical childhood development follows similar stages before a child’s first words are spoken. Children start experimenting with their voices in their toddler years by babbling and cooing.

They use nonverbal language to communicate their needs and establish strong social connections, such as making eye contact, pointing, and gesturing. Over time, they learn sounds and use them to form their first words.

Eventually, as they associate communication with positive results (i.e., getting what they want), they start to string words together in phrases and acquire more complex linguistic abilities.

A speech or language-delayed child typically follows the same developmental patterns as their peers but is slower to reach these milestones. However, social responses, like hugs and smiles, still strongly motivate them.

They desire to build strong social bonds with their parents and peers, respond positively to attention, and are inclined to mimic the actions of people around them.

In addition to speech and language delays, children with autism may experience additional challenges related to their communication, socialization, and behavior. These can disrupt their ability to build meaningful social connections and relationships with people. 

Here are some key differences between speech delay and autism spectrum disorder:

A comparison table of Speech Delay vs Autism Differences

Autism and Other Communication Issues

How can you tell the difference between autism vs. late talker? Well, some communication-related challenges may be signs of autism, including:

  •     Being non-responsive to their name
  •     Trouble getting your child’s attention
  •     Slower development of gestures to communicate their needs
  •     Babbling in his/her first year and then stopping
  •     Repetitive usage of a single word or phrase
  •     Using a robotic-sounding speaking voice

If you notice your child struggling with any of these symptoms, it’s best to talk to a professional for a proper diagnosis.

Autism and Social Challenges

Some children with autism have difficulty relating to – and associating with – other people. Signs can include:

  •     A general lack of social awareness
  •     Being unresponsive to social cues, like waving “hi”
  •     Inability to focus on the same object with someone else (called joint attention)
  •     Difficulty with social skills, such as sharing, taking turns, and maintaining friendships
  •     Avoiding eye contact
  •     Limited or restricted interests in particular toys or activities
  •     Decreased interest in engaging in play routines with others

Autism and Behavioral Challenges

A child’s inability to adequately express themselves can lead to a wide range of possible behavioral issues, including:

  •     Repetitive behaviors or hand and body movements, like rocking his/her head back and forth or lining up their toys
  •     Aversion to being touched or held
  •     Getting easily upset for unknown reasons
  •     Strong attachment to certain objects, like toys or a television show
  •     Having trouble staying still
  •     Being easily upset or distressed when there is a sudden change to their daily routine

When Should You Seek Professional Evaluation?

For children who aren’t developing critical speech skills or lagging behind their peers, it’s important to seek a professional evaluation from a doctor or speech-language pathologist. This is crucial, no matter if the child is dealing with speech delay or autism symptoms.

A developmental screening and evaluation can help you determine whether your child is speech-delayed, has ASD, or both. Understanding your child’s conditions and risk factors can bring you peace of mind and help you make the most informed treatment decision.

Until recently, ASD was rarely diagnosed before 3-4 years old. However, current research supports lowering the age of identification, mostly due to the effectiveness of early intervention.

Around the age of 18 months to two years, speech and language delays become most noticeable. While parents may be able to spot many important signs at home, this is generally the most ideal time to have your child professionally evaluated.

There are several tools and methods your doctor or speech-language pathologist will use to determine if a child’s speech delay is caused by autism or is unrelated.

These often include:

  • testing and examining their social skills (i.e., eye contact, emotional cues, name recognition)
  • physical responses (i.e., ability to point, using objects to play), 
  • language comprehension (i.e., identifying objects and understanding basic directions).
Speech therapist and a young boy practicing

Improving Autistic Children’s Communication with Speech Delay Treatment

It’s important to remember that no two children are the same. Communication issues, just like autism symptoms, can vary dramatically from person to person.

Speech-language pathologists and other care providers, such as teachers, counselors, and psychologists, play a key role in a child’s treatment plan. Speech therapists are experts at diagnosing and treating communication-related challenges that present with autism.

They help develop an individualized treatment plan specialized to each child’s specific needs that can improve their verbal and nonverbal communication. They help individuals express themselves, improve their personal and social relationships, and better function in day-to-day activities.

Even if your autistic child is nonverbal or was diagnosed later in life, it’s important not to lose hope. This doesn’t mean they won’t be able to become a literate and articulate adult.

Studies have shown that autistic children aged four and five with severe language delays went from being nonverbal to acquiring language skills with proper treatment. Your child is destined for great things – they may need more help getting there.

With that said, here are some communication skills that can be improved with intervention from a speech therapist. They work closely with children, their families/caregivers, and other providers to help improve many aspects of their communication, as listed below.

Verbal Communication

Speech therapists can help autistic children better articulate and verbalize sounds and words. This can give children the strategies and mechanisms to express their thoughts, ideas, and feelings. 

Social Pragmatics

Social pragmatic skills involve how and when children use communication in social settings. 

For example, while a child with autism may know how to say “hello,” they may not understand that this word is used as a greeting. Speech therapists can help children learn the appropriate social context to use certain words and phrases. 

Body Language

Facial expressions, hand movements, and gestures are some of the most expressive parts of language. Unfortunately, some children with autism may have trouble interpreting their meaning.

A speech therapist can help match emotions with proper facial expressions and recognize subtle signals indicating whether a person is happy, sad, or angry.


Prosody is the volume and intonation of our voices in conversation. When we talk, the sound of our voice naturally goes up and down.

Some children with autism have flat prosody, which can make their voices sound robotic and emotionless. A speech therapist can help children modulate the tone and volume of their voice when they speak.

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Some kids with autism may frequently make grammar mistakes or refer to themselves in the third person. A speech therapist can help address these common issues and promote correct word tenses.

Social Skills

A lack of social cues and awareness can be one of the most obvious telltale signs of autism in young children. Speech therapists can help children recognize and build social communication skills.

Conversational Skills

While many children with autism can make simple and short statements, they may struggle to carry a conversation. This includes:

  • responding to their conversational partner,
  • not interrupting,
  • initiating dialogue, and
  • engaging in the natural back-and-forth of discourse.

Speech therapists can help children with their conversation skills so they can implement these practices in everyday situations.

Is It Speech Delay or Autism?

Although speech delay can go hand-in-hand with autism spectrum disorder, it is not always the case. There are crucial differences between speech delay vs. autism that can give you a better understanding of these two conditions.

A speech delay alone does not mean a child has autism, and by working with experts and doing the right research, you can ensure your child gets the best support.

Download your FREE guide on 

Assistive Communication Devices for Children with Autism


Q: Is speech delay always a sign of autism?

A: No, speech delay can occur independently of autism. However, it can be an early indicator in some cases.

Q: What are common reasons for speech delays in a 3-year-old not diagnosed with autism?

A: Speech delays can be caused by various factors such as hearing problems, language disorders, or environmental influences. It’s crucial to explore these possibilities with the guidance of a pediatrician or speech therapist.

Q: Can speech therapy help children with autism?

A: Yes, speech therapy is beneficial for children with autism. It can address communication challenges and improve their ability to express themselves.

Q: Does early intervention work for speech delay?

A: Early intervention can significantly improve speech and language development, improving a child’s overall well-being and quality of life.

Q: What are the behavioral challenges of autism?

A: Autism often presents various behavioral challenges, with common ones including repetitive movements, aversion to touch, sensitivity to unknown triggers, strong attachments to specific objects, difficulty staying still, and heightened distress in response to sudden changes in routine.


Autism: Impairments in Social Interaction

Differentiating ASD from DLD in Toddlers

Speech and language delay in children

Speech and Language Developmental Milestones https://www.nidcd.nih.gov/health/speech-and-language 

Understanding Challenging Behaviors in Autism Spectrum Disorder: A Multi-Component, Interdisciplinary Model

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