We all have a need to be understood. But few among us struggle to stitch a sentence together. Conversational breakdowns are common among people who are but not limited to hard of hearing, battling autism, or suffering from speech delays.

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My child is a late talker - could it be autism?

If your child’s speech is slow to develop compared to others their age, it can be a cause for concern. When should you seek help? Will they catch up on their own? Or could their speech delay be a sign of a learning disorder or autism?


What might cause a child to be slow to talk?

Some children aged between 18-30 months, who are developing normally in other ways, have a limited spoken vocabulary for their age. These children may be just late talkers and often catch up on their own.

In some cases, a child might have a developmental speech and language delay. In the majority of cases these can be effectively treated by speech therapy once diagnosed.

Secondary speech and language delays occur due to other conditions. These may be due to hearing problems, or conditions that affect the ability to produce speech sounds, or disorders which pose challenges in understanding or learning language.


Can a speech or language delay be a sign of autism?

A person with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) communicates, interacts, learns and behaves in ways that are different from most other people. Autism is a spectrum, which means that each person with ASD has a distinct set of strengths and challenges. In general, ASD is characterised by persistent challenges with social interaction, speech and communication, and repetitive behaviours.

Delayed language development, with very few or no meaningful, two-word phrases by 2 years old, is often one of the earliest signs of autism. However, most children who are late talkers do not have autism.


How can you tell the difference between speech delay and autism?

When toddlers are learning to communicate, they tend to use a variety of non-verbal language such as making eye contact, pointing, gesturing and mimicking actions of those around them, in addition to sounds which later develop into speech. A child who has a speech or language delay typically follows the same developmental patterns of communication even if they find it difficult to use spoken language.

Children with autism usually demonstrate other issues with communication and social interaction which may be noticeable by age 2 or 3, such as:

  • not responding to their name
  • avoiding eye contact
  • persistently preferring to play alone rather than with other children
  • not smiling when you smile at them
  • not pointing at objects to show interest or looking when another person points at them
  • getting very upset if they do not like a certain taste, smell or sound
  • repetitive movements, such as flapping their hands, flicking their fingers,rocking or spinning
  • having trouble expressing their needs using typical words or actions
  • persistently repeating the same words or phrases
  • loss of previously acquired speech or social skills
  • repetitive play, for example, repeatedly lining toys up in a particular order

Having a few of these signs does not necessarily mean that your child has ASD. The number and severity of early signs of autism vary greatly from one child to another and between girls and boys.


When should I consult a doctor?

There are many different reasons why a child may be slow to talk. If you are concerned that your child is not reaching the speech and language milestones within the average age range (link to blog: My child is a late talker - what should I do?) or has other issues with social interactions and behaviour, speak to their doctor and ask for their speech and language to be assessed. Even though some children with delayed speech do catch up on their own, others will need speech therapy or other types of therapy to help them with their language and communication.

If your child has communication, social or behavioural challenges common in autistic spectrum disorder, your doctor may carry out screening for autism. Screening cannot diagnose ASD but will indicate whether your child should be referred to an autism specialist team for an assessment.

If there is an underlying condition causing speech or communication issues, obtaining a diagnosis will enable you to better understand your child and help them get any extra support they may need. Early intervention usually leads to better outcomes.


How can I help my child with speech or communication challenges?

It is important to seek an assessment and guidance from your child’s health professional. Children who struggle with communication can often benefit from learning sign language or using an assistive speech app, such as Fabulaa.

Fabulaa is a FREE to use mobile app, designed to help people of all ages who face communication challenges, including children with delayed speech and autism.

Fabulaa is not a substitute for assessment and treatment by health professionals, but can be used as a tool alongside professional help.

The Fabulaa app can be used as a speech assistant to convert text to speech or by clicking on image cards, words or phrases to activate voice output. Fabulaa is customizable with colourful visuals and engaging features.

Fabulaa is the most affordable and accessible augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) app in the GCC and is currently available in five languages.