Difficulties using and understanding verbal and non-verbal language are exceedingly common in children with autism. Deficits can be found in these areas:
- The development of spoken language – no speech
- Responses to the communications of others (e.g. won’t look)
- Failure to initiate or sustain conversations (e.g. turn taking)
- Pronoun confusion (e.g. I vs. you)
- Stereotypical and repetitive use of language (using lines from a favourite movie to communicate)
- Idiosyncratic use of words and phrases (e.g. always salutes and says “Yes sir” when given a direction)
- Abnormalities in pitch, stress, rate, rhythm, and intonation of speech.
Communication involves both understanding language (receptive skills) and providing information (expressive skills). The abilities of these children vary widely in that some children with autism will have a good grasp on comprehension (e.g. “sit down”) but lack expressive skills (e.g. “My tummy hurts”) and vice versa. Regardless, many children with autism experience difficulty with non-verbal communication (e.g. eye contact, facial expressions, smiling, etc.) Children with autism often fail to understand words or phrases that are abstract (e.g. “We’ll go swimming later” or “I love you”) or that have a double meaning (e.g. the teacher says to a child with autism, “Clear off the table” and he goes over and pushes everything off it). They also tend to interpret things very literally (e.g. “Give yourself a hand”).
Some children exhibit echolalia, which is the repetition of words, signs, phrases or sentences spoken by other people. Some children use this as a communication device (e.g. the adult says “Do you want a car?” and the child might say “Want a car” to mean yes). A child may repeat the same phrase over and over again as a means of regulating his/her own behaviour (e.g. a child repeats aloud “Time to clean up” while cleaning).