Spotting the Difference: Speech Delay vs. Autism - What You Need to Know

Speech delays and autism spectrum disorder can both impact language development. However, there are some notable differences between the two problems.  

Speech delay is a problem where a child has difficulty developing speech and language skills. Children with a speech delay seek out close personal relationships with their parents and peers, respond positively to attention, and mimic the behaviours of people around them. They tend to naturally use body language and eye contact but will often have difficulty producing specific speech sounds. They may also have difficulty with gross and fine motor skills such as balance, writing or using scissors. 

Symptoms of speech delay 

  • 4-6 months: Not babbling.  
  • 12 months: Not stringing together consonant-vowel combinations (e.g., “da” or “ma”), not using gestures like pointing and waving. 
  • 18 months: Trouble imitating sounds; saying only a few words, not understanding what others say, and prefers to use gestures over vocalizing to communicate. 
  • 24 months: Difficulty understanding simple instructions and does not combine words together.  
  • 2 years: Using fewer than 50 words; having trouble playing with and interacting with other children. 
  • 3 years: Not speaking in brief, simple sentences; not using plural words or pointing out body parts. 
  • 4 years: Unable to share a simple story or form sentences 4-5 words in length. Difficulty understanding pronouns, such as “you” and “me.” 

What can cause speech delay? 

The most common factors that can cause speech delay are:  

  • Hearing loss, including children who have recurrent ear infections and those who are hearing impaired 
  • Autism Spectrum Disorder 
  • Genetic disorders such as Down’s syndrome 
  • Intellectual disabilities 
  • Brain Injury 
  • Premature birth or low birth weight 

What is the difference between speech delay and autism (ASD)? 

In contrast, autism spectrum disorder is a neurological disorder that affects social skills, learning, communication, and behavior. Autistic children may have trouble with social interaction, play skills, communication, adaptation to minor changes in their routine and prefer to be alone. They may also have trouble making speech sounds and they use persistent repetition of words or phrases (echolalia). Difficulties in motor skills and repetitive body movements such as hand spinning, flapping or spinning are also observed.  

The following symptoms related to speech delay are observed when the child has ASD: 

  • Typically, slow in responding or shows no response to parents or caregivers calling their name.
  • The toddler may not gesture (point) towards objects or people. 
  • Slower rate of language development. A one-year-old may coo and babble during the first year and then stop entirely.
  • Signs of repeated words and phrases (echolalia). 
  • Speaking in single words only most of the times. 
  • Uses words and phrases that seem out of place or have meaning only the child and their caregivers understand. 

How speech and language therapy can improve communication skills? 

  • Verbal communication: the speech therapist can help children increasing their vocabulary and extending their sentences through playing. In addition, she helps children articulate and verbalize sounds and words in giving strategies and mechanisms to better express their thoughts, ideas, and feelings. As children become more effective communicators, it can also help reduce behavioral problems and develop social skills.  
  • Body Language: A speech therapist in Dubai can help match emotions with proper facial expressions and recognize subtle signals that can indicate whether a person is happy, sad, or angry. Facial expressions, hand movements, and gestures are some of the most expressive parts of language. Some children may have trouble interpreting their meaning.  
  • Grammar: Some kids with speech delay or autism may frequently make grammar mistakes or refer to themselves in the third person. A speech therapist in Dubai can help address these common issues and promote correct word tenses. 
  • Prosody: When we talk, the sound of our voice naturally goes up and down. Some children with autism have flat prosody, which can make their voice sound robotic and emotionless. A speech therapist can help children modulate the tone and volume of their voice when they speak. 

To sum it up, understanding the difference between speech delay and autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is vital for helping children effectively. If you’re looking for the right therapy for your child, Talking Brains Center (TBC) in Dubai is here to assist. TBC offers specialized help that can make a real difference in your child’s life. By recognizing these distinctions and seeking appropriate therapy, you’re giving your child the best chance to communicate, learn, and grow happily.

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