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Speech Delay or Autism? What is the Difference?

by on 01/04/2019     670 1723

There has been seemingly an increase of children that are developing speech later in life, and this seems to be more of a norm rather than an exception. Both parents in today’s day and age tend to be both working parents, and generally long hours at that. Parents tend to leave children primarily with day care providers, maids or grandparents. It is unfortunate that in most cases, children are not really given opportunities to play (which is the primary medium of how a child learns skills including communication), explore and do things by themselves eg: self- feeding, instead all of these opportunities are revoked in exchange for unlimited screen time. Screen time by definition is defined as time spent using a device such as a computer, television, or games console. This basically means anytime a child is not interacting and learning from the surroundings in a natural manner, instead is exposed to digital equipment be it youtube, games, or TV shows.

Recent studies by Birken (2017) suggested based on their findings of research from 2011 to 2015 that every additional 30 minutes of hand-held screen time was linked to a 49 percent increased risk in expressive speech delay. Other forms of communication — gestures, emotions, social eye-gazing — were unaffected.

This comes down to the main confusion parents, teacher and interventionists face everyday; is this just a speech delay or is this Autism?

What is Autism?

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) otherwise known as Autism is a pervasive developmental disorder that affects how the brain processes information. Early signs of autism are seen generally before the age of 2 years old. There is no identified “cause” to autism at this point of time, which means autism is not due to excessive screen time, poor parenting, any difficulties in birth or diet a mother practiced during pregnancy. Unfortunately, there is no ‘formula’ per say to follow to ensure your child does not develop autism.

Autism generally affects 3 significant areas which is:

(a)    a delay in speech.

(b)   Rigid behaviors or repetitive behaviors that serve no social function

(c)    Poor socialization

In order to be diagnosed, these challenges above must be pervasive; it must affect the quality of life in general, and must be present in all areas of life. For example, if your child is non-verbal at 3, he will exhibit the same challenges across school, home and all other environments, as well as across all individuals.

Behavior is the primary area that sets Autism apart from many other diagnoses such as speech related diagnoses. Some examples of rigid behaviors or repetitive behaviors; flapping hands (especially when idle or excited), rocking back and forth, constantly spinning in circles or enjoys items that spin,  repetitive sounds/words/sentences, constantly mouthing objects or smelling objects, rigid play skills which include lining all toys or cars in a row, picking toys up and only spinning the wheels, over-interest in specific topics eg: cars, planets, dinosaurs, challenges in flexibility in routines, and challenges in accepting “no”. These are just a few examples to name a few.

Autism is a life-long diagnosis, and early intervention is the key to being able to be independent and successful in life. Due to Autism being a spectrum disorder, each individual is unique however all individuals share the characteristics above. Some individuals after intervention are fluid and verbally capable, some have significant pervasive behaviors such as hitting, biting, scratching, and some do not exhibit any aggressive behaviors. It is good to remember that all individuals with autism can break through, go to school, make friends and lead a functional and full life with the right support from the right professionals and cooperation from the family.

What is a Speech Delay?

Speech delays generally refer to the expressive context of language, which means the ability to speak and verbalise. Language is divided into receptive language and expressive language.

Receptive language is the ability to understand without the need to express eg: when you give your child command, “bring the toy here” or “clean up the blocks”. Your child is able to show understanding when he is able to follow through the instruction successfully.

Expressive language is primarily when we use our words, for example when you are your child “What is your friends name?” or “is that a yellow dinosaur?”. Your child is able to verbally respond with the friends’ name and with a “yes” or “no”.

Speech delays generally mean there is a speech deficiency in expressive language, this means generally your child should be able to take and follow instructions, however may not be able to respond verbally with words, or speech may be unclear or impaired.

Children with speech delay is still able to socialize well with peers (especially when the child is in preschool; younger years) and speech delays do not result in rigid behaviors or repetitive behaviors that serve no social function. If your child does exhibit repetitive or odd behaviors alongside a speech delay, this may mean your child may be struggling with more than a speech related diagnoses; there is a possibility of autism if all the criteria above are met.

Do seek support from a developmental paediatrician or a child psychologist if your child is showing other challenges and symptoms that relate to behaviors and poor socialization. Remember the key to success if early identification and early intervention.

Charlene Marie Samuel is the Director of Autism Behavior Center (ABC), the largest 1:1 ABA Therapy Center in Malaysia who supports individuals with Autism, Speech Delays are related diagnoses. She has currently been working with individuals with autism and special needs for over 11 years.