What is critical to promote development in children with late language acquisition?

– Promoting motivation and intention to communicate

Language is always the biggest issue for parents of children with autism, and it is often perceived as the most significant disability. There are many reasons for delayed language development, often not solved simply by speech therapy. Still, nevertheless, the most common solution offered to promote language development is “professional speech therapy.”

However, the child’s language progress can differ depending on the intervention. While there are many language development theories and studies, traditional SLP interventions are not appropriate for children with autism.

Children make decisions and act based on what they see, hear, and experience.  Words are no different.  Words don’t just come out of nowhere.  After months of seeing, hearing, experiencing, and responding to feedback, children make sounds and gestures, and only then do they produce so-called words. This is the most natural process of language development and is no different for children with autism.  When this natural and easy process doesn’t happen, we consider it challenging and push the child to learn. To me, this is not much different from child abuse. 

Think back to when we learned the 2nd language at school. After years of study through middle school, high school, and college, we still struggle to say a word when we meet a foreigner.  We know how hard it is even to speak one single word when it is not naturally taken but forced to learn.     But we’re asking our young children to do the same thing even if they have developmental challenges. 

Interventions for language development should be done in a way that is most natural and comfortable for the child.  All humans have needs for social interaction and are born to express this through crying, gestures, facial expressions, vocalizations, etc.  When these expressions are intentionally recognized and appropriately reflected by the other person, they are perceived as meaningful to the person expressing them.  Meaningful preverbal words lead to sound imitation based on enhanced interaction, which leads to language emergence.  This developmental theory is based on research by Bloom and Tinker (2001).

In other words, for language to emerge, there must be a primal motivation and desire to communicate and an environment that facilitates it.  What does it mean for a child to have an expressive environment?  It’s when a child feels most comfortable and safe and has a trusting relationship with someone.  Children on the autism spectrum have these motivations and desires but struggle to express them outwardly. But if these basics are ignored, and someone constantly urges or demands them to “speak up” or “talk,” will they want to?

Even if you’re not a child with autism, what about those situations when you want to speak but find it difficult to express yourself?  When it is noisy, when you have trouble organizing your thoughts, when you’re too hungry, when you’re exhausted, when you have a lack of energy, when you are uncomfortable, when you’re not motivated, when you’re focused on something else, when you’re confused, when you’re annoyed, … I could give you 100 more examples. 

If you want your child to communicate and express their language as soon as possible, rushing to speech therapy isn’t the answer.  First, you must create the most comfortable and trusting environment and ensure your child is motivated to communicate and fully engage with you.

Subscribe DR-TOMATO newsletter