Language Development and Autism
Most children develop language in a broadly consistent way: in their first few months babies will already have learned to turn when they hear someone and smile in recognition; this receptivity grows in sophistication over the next few months, until a child starts pre-verbal babbling and eventually speaking around their first birthday and constructing sentences by age two.
This is not the case for children with autism, close to half of whom will stay mute their entire lives. The other half might display a large and complex array of linguistic quirks. Some might have a condition called echolalia, where like the mythical Echo, they can only repeat what others have said. If you ask someone with echolalia a question, they are likely to repeat it back to you.
Others will struggle to form sentences and might confuse pronouns. Many, even if they develop the ability to form sentences, will struggle socially and often deliver thoughts in an oddly high-pitched, or monotonous voice. Even more confusingly some will use phrases that might not make immediate sense – for example saying ‘bedroom’ for any indoor space.
This inability to communicate can become incredibly frustrating – some children might have screaming fits as a result. The remarkable Temple Grandin, an American doctor diagnosed with autism at an early age who has been listed in the Time 100 heroes list for her work as an autism advocate, says of her earlier life: ‘screaming was the only way I could communicate’.
Temple Grandin is a case in point that autistic children can and should be helped from a young age. As Grandin herself points out in her Ted Talk (linked below) – we need autistic people. Autistic brains work differently to the norm and can solve problems in a way most people’s can’t. Some of the brightest minds of history, she claims, might well have been on the spectrum: Einstein, Tesla and Mozart.
Happy, Mad, Glad and Sad
Helen Tager-Flusberg is the person at the vanguard of understanding autism and language. She vividly recalls one incident when she asked a 13-year-old with autism how he was feeling. He responded, stone-faced, that he was, ‘happy, mad, glad and sad!’ This anecdote is indicative of what she thinks is the main problem children with autism face – a lack of intra and inter-personal understanding.
She believes that many children with autism can grasp the fundamentals of language: ‘the difference is in their ability to use the language socially’. She cites evidence that children with autism use significantly less words relating to psychological states compared to an average child.
This has been disputed by others in her field who see the main linguistic symptom of autism as a fundamental inability to understand grammar, but Tager-Flusberg points to the success stories, the Grandins of this world. In particular, early interventions targeting at-risk children and engaging them and helping them understand emotions can make significant improvements to their lives, helping them communicate their unique and often brilliant minds to the rest of the world (http://informahealthcare.com/doi/abs/10.3109/17549507.2013.861018).