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Many Nonverbal Children with Autism Conquer Severe Language Delays

Speech delay is a core characteristic of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), and it’s common for some children with ASD to regress and lose the ability to say certain words or phrases they’d once mastered. Many parents are told that their child will likely remain nonverbal, but an encouraging study published in the journal Pediatrics offers hope that this isn’t always the case.

In fact, the team of researchers in the 2013 study found that the majority of nonverbal autistic children in the study sample went on to overcome their severe language delays. The research included 535 children with ASD who hadn’t acquired the ability to speak in phrases by age four.

The researchers collected and analyzed data from the Simon Complex Collection (SSC), which is a multisite database of biological and phenotypic data on children ages four to 18.

Of the 535 children, 163 were considered to be severely speech delayed, meaning they could only speak in single words (‘no phrase speech’ group). The remaining children were categorized into the ‘phrase speech’ group, and a subsample of this group was considered as the ‘fluent speech’ group since they were given an ADOS (autism diagnostic observation schedule) module 3 or 4.

According to the study results, the majority of the children (70 percent) achieved phrase speech by 8 years of age, and nearly half of the study sample (47 percent) attained fluent speech. These encouraging findings provide hope that many children who are nonverbal at 4 years old can overcome their severe language delays.

Breaking down these findings further, the researchers concluded that the biggest predictors of successfully attaining phrase/fluent speech were nonverbal cognition and showing an interest in social engagement. Repetitive and sensory behaviors, on the other hand, didn’t predict whether a child would go on to attain speech.

“These findings offer hope to parents that their language-delayed child will go on to develop speech in elementary school, or even as teenagers,” Autism Speaks Chief Science Officer, Geraldine Dawson, said in an article. “By highlighting important predictors of language acquisition – especially the role of nonverbal cognitive and social skills – this also suggests that targeting these areas in early intervention will help to promote language.”

Early intervention with Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) is a scientifically-validated method that helps children on the spectrum work through areas of severe developmental delay, like language and nonverbal communication.

Although the initial news of an ASD diagnosis can leave parents feeling overwhelmed or disheartened, this research serves as solid evidence that many children with autism have the ability to progress past their developmental delays to reach their highest potentials.