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Language Development in Autistic Children: The Communication Problems of AutismThe communication problems of autism vary, depending upon the intellectual and social development of the individual. Some autistic children may be unable to speak, whereas others may have rich vocabularies and are able to talk about topics of interest in great depth. Despite this variation, the majority of autistic individuals have little or no problem with pronunciation. Most have difficulty effectively using language. Many also have problems with word and sentence meaning, intonation, and rhythm.
Those who can speak often say things that have no content or information. For example, an autistic individual may repeatedly count from one to five. Others use echolalia, a repetition of something previously heard. One form, immediate echolalia, may occur when the individual repeats the question, "Do you want something to drink?" instead of replying with a "yes" or "no." In another form called delayed echolalia, an individual may say, "Do you want something to drink?" whenever he or she is asking for a drink.
Others may use stock phrases such as, "My name is Tom," to start a conversation, even when speaking with friends or family. Still others may repeat learned scripts such as those heard during television commercials. Some individuals with higher intelligence may be able to speak in depth about topics they are interested in, such as dinosaurs or railroads, but are unable to engage in an interactive conversation on those topics.
Most autistic children do not make eye contact and have poor attention duration. They are often unable to use gestures either as a primary means of communication, as in sign language, or to assist verbal communication, such as pointing to an object they want. Some autistic individuals speak in a high-pitched voice or use robot-like speech. They are often unresponsive to the speech of others and may not respond to their own names. As a result, some are mistakenly thought to have a hearing problem. The correct use of pronouns is also a problem for autistic individuals. For example, if asked, "Are you wearing a red shirt today?" the individual may respond with, "You are wearing a red shirt today," instead of "Yes, I am wearing a red shirt today."
For many autistic children, speech and language develop, to some degree, but not to a normal ability level. This development is usually uneven. For example, vocabulary development in areas of interest may be accelerated. Many autistic children have good memories for information just heard or seen. Some may be able to read words well before the age of five but may not be able to demonstrate understanding of what is read. Others have musical talents or advanced ability to count and perform mathematical calculations. Approximately 10 percent show "savant" skills or detailed abilities in specific areas such as calendar calculation, musical ability, or math.