How Speech Therapy Can Improve Social Skills in Children with Autism

As the field of speech-language pathology is continually growing, there are many ways that speech therapy can impact children and their families. One of the most important aspects of early childhood development is communication, yet not every child reaches speech and language milestones at the same pace. Speech and language delays are common in children on the autism spectrum, which may result in a referral to a speech-language pathologist (SLP). Since many children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) also experience challenges with social skills, speech therapy or a therapeutic preschool program can also help children to build their social communication skills.

Children with autism often struggle with engaging in social interactions with their peers, as they may process expressive language, receptive language, and nonverbal cues differently than a child who is typically developing. All of these aspects of communication are necessary for developing social skills, so if a child experiences delays in any of these areas, they may struggle with building social skills. What does this mean exactly? Autism can affect an individual’s ability to interpret and understand social norms and cues during an interaction. Since autism occurs on a spectrum, every individual with a diagnosis experiences autism differently, so it is important for speech-language pathologists to carefully consider the appropriate treatment plan for each unique kiddo they work with.

Expressive language and social skills
One of the first goals that a speech-language pathologist or a therapeutic preschool teacher may set for a child with autism is developing expressive language skills (if they struggle in this aspect of communication). If a child has very low usage of expressive language, a SLP will use a variety of strategies to build these skills, depending on the unique needs of the child. One way to start building expressive language is through communication boards. (These can be made using the program Boardmaker.) These may look like small flashcards with a picture:


These communication boards or cards can help a child communicate their feelings, thoughts, and needs to others, even if they are still developing their expressive language skills. This can be the start of developing social skills. The child may start by pointing to the card or handing it to their SLP or therapeutic preschool teacher. As the child becomes more proficient in this system, the SLP can begin integrating more complicated vocabulary or ideas into the communication boards. Modeling is also another important aspect of developing expressive language. By parents and SLPs modeling language skills, the child is exposed to more language during the process of developing their own communication and social skills.

Receptive communication and social skills
Social interactions are also highly dependent on receptive language skills. These skills refer to the way we interpret and understand language. In order to maintain a conversation with another person, it is important to have receptive language skills, in order to understand what the other person is saying. Children who have delayed receptive language skills may also struggle to answer questions asked to them by a parent, teacher, or therapist. There are many different strategies a SLP or therapeutic preschool teacher can use to improve receptive language, including pretend play or reading. Both of these activities allow an SLP to engage the child and ask many questions, to practice their receptive language skills.

Nonverbal cues and social skills
A SLP or therapeutic preschool teacher may also work with children with autism to understand nonverbal cues, such as a thumbs up or a high five. These may seem basic or unimportant, yet nonverbal cues are frequently used in everyday social interactions. A SLP might use social stories to illustrate the meaning of these different cues to children with autism.

If your child with autism is experiencing delays in speech and language or social skills, a therapeutic preschool program may provide the added support they need. Contact CST Academy at 773-620-7800 or click the purple button below to learn more about the services we provide for children in Chicago, including speech therapy, ABA therapy, feeding therapy, and occupational therapy.