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Communications Problems in Autism

Date Last Revised: 
October 30, 2008
Date Published: 
April 2, 2007

Little girl and boy on sand dunesCommunication is a social act, so it is not surprising that issues with both verbal and non-verbal communication are central to autism. Three of the eleven children in Kanner’s study never acquired speech; the remaining eight spoke in unusual ways. Some of them repeated words or phrases endlessly -- a process called echolalia.  Some spoke with unusual intonation, or reversed pronouns (saying “you” when they meant “I” or “me”) so that it seemed they didn’t truly understand the difference between themselves as individual people (“I”) and other people (“you”).

There was also an absence of appropriate nonverbal communication: facial expressions, gestures, and eye contact. Kanner’s colleagues, having observed one of the girls in his study, commented:

“Her language always has the same quality. Her speech is never accompanied by facial expression or gestures. She does not look into one’s face. Her voice is peculiarly unmodulated, somewhat hoarse; she utters her words in an abrupt manner. Her utterances are impersonal. She never uses the personal pronouns of the first and second persons correctly. She does not seem able to conceive the real meaning of these words.” 1

We are not yet sure whether a failure to imitate other humans leads to the social deficits of autism, or whether social deficits lead to a failure to imitate. 2   Either way, an individual with autism does not naturally pick up gestures, facial expressions, appropriate eye contact, or tone of voice.

Neither do they easily acquire speech and language. By definition, a person officially diagnosed with Autistic Disorder – that is, autism -- must have had, at the very least, a speech delay, if not a failure to acquire speech altogether. As in Kanner’s study, even when language is acquired it is used in unusual ways, with a “marked impairment in the ability to initiate or sustain a conversation with others.” 3   Again, the social aspect is key, and helping someone with autism acquire speech is part of the larger process of helping someone with autism connect to others. Speech therapy is not just about learning to articulate words, but to use them to request, comment, respond.

See Challenging Behaviors: Communication and Language Issues.


  1. Kanner, L. (1943). Autistic disturbances of affective contact. Nervous Child, 2, 217-250. (pg. 241)
  2. Rogers, S., Cook, I., & Meryl, A. (2005). Imitation and play in autism. In F. Volkmar et al. (Eds.), Handbook of Autism and Pervasive Developmental Disorders (pp.382-405). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons. (pg. 386)
  3. American Psychiatric Association. (2000). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (4th ed., rev.). Washington DC: Author. (Pg. 75)
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