Can Language Delay Be Confused With Autism?


Some of the hallmarks of ASD are speech and language delays, so it isn’t unusual to confuse these signs with autism even if they aren’t. Language and speech delay is not specific to autism since neurotypical kids commonly experience them, too.

However, it is important to note that language delays associated with autism have some very clear distinctions from other kinds of delays. In many instances, these differences can be spotted even by untrained eyes.

Overdue language milestones can be concerning, but they don’t automatically translate to autism. Today we’ll go over why speech delays happen and how to tell if they’re ASD-linked or not.

The Differences Between Speech Delays

Early on in life, we learn communication is key to getting the things we want. Long before babies use spoken language to call an adult’s attention, they point, pull, make eye contact, and otherwise make an effort to get their message across.

Eventually, most children learn to use verbal communication because of the positive reactions and outcomes from the act. Some highly motivational responses include smiles and hugs. Moreover, most kids have the natural inclination to observe their surroundings, imitate the way people talk and act around them, and feel lonely or bored when left to their own devices.

On the other hand, children on the autism spectrum experience social communication challenges that prevent them from bonding meaningfully with others. Kids with high-functioning autism may possess more social prowess, but communication issues plague all those across the spectrum. Thus, a child with autism is likely to:

  • Act according to their social interests as opposed to others’ reactions
  • Not imitate the actions of other people
  • Have more interest in things than in people
  • Prefer being left to their own devices

All these traits lead to different aspirations, behaviors, and everyday routines.

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Speech Delays From Autism vs. Normal Speech Delays

As mentioned previously, there are apparent differences between autism language delays and other types of delays. One difference, in particular, is fairly easy to spot.

In a comparative evaluation of two kids aged two, you find one child speaks a few words and another not using words but making babbling sounds and gestures. However, it’s the child who’s yet to speak who knows how to communicate and the one who actually knows some words who doesn’t use them to interact.

The former points at and pulls on things to get a message across, while the latter seems like he or she has no idea what sounds and gestures are. The engaging one likes to be around other people and doesn’t want to be left alone, while the other feels more at ease when by themself.

Despite learning words earlier, the first child is more likely to be exhibiting early signs of autism than the other. On the other hand, while a speech delay cannot be completely ruled out in child number two, this could most likely stem from an issue addressable by early intervention. Some possibilities include cognitive challenges, hearing loss, and problems with muscles used in speech.

Autism Signs That Manifest in Speech

Aside from speech delays, autism can also manifest in the following communication-related behaviors in children:

  • Slow or delayed responses to their names being called. Other verbal attempts to get their attention are either being ignored or misinterpreted.
  • Not knowing the meaning behind gestures and being slow to develop these communication aids.
  • Cooing and babbling in the first few months of life but suddenly stopping.
  • Often experiences delayed speech milestones.
  • Uses pictures or their own sign language to communicate. They don’t use body language the way other kids their age do to get their point across.
  • Are repetitive with the words they use, which tend to be limited to single words and a few go-to phrases. They’re often direct to the point and blasé in how they communicate, which bears no connection to their actual feelings.
  • Seem as if they don’t communicate with feelings or emotions. Children with high-functioning autism are often the exception, but even their words have some degree of detachment.
  • Can suffer from a condition called echolalia, where they often repeat phrases and words they hear.
  • Have their own vocabulary of words and gestures and expect you to know the meaning of them. These things hold special meaning to these individuals, so you may want to put your heart into learning them.
  • Tend to use phrases, words, and gestures in an untimely manner.

So, Can Language Delay Be Confused With Autism?

Yes, it can. However, autism tends to take more of a hold in a child’s communication-related behaviors than in their speech and language per se.

Language delays are also a proven common occurrence among neurotypical children, so one shouldn’t jump to conclusions without thorough evaluation. That said, when speech delays become communication-centered, it would be wise to get in touch with your child’s pediatrician or speech-language pathologist as soon as possible. While not 100 percent assured, these are often the beginning speech manifestations of ASD.

This is a contributed post and therefore may not reflect the views and opinions of this blog or its author. ☺

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