Will My Autistic Child Ever Be Able to Talk?

Speech therapists work with autistic children and their families to help support communication development. And one question we often get from parents and caregivers is “Will my child ever be able to talk?” The answer isn’t a simple one, but let’s explore it.

How do autistic children develop communication skills?

The most important thing to keep in mind is that every child with autism is an individual, with their own strengths and differences. That’s part of the reason the term “spectrum” is used! It’s not possible to make a statement about all autistic children, since each child may need different levels of support in different areas. (Of course, this is true of kids without autism, too.)

Here are some different ways that autistic children may develop communication skills:

  • Some autistic people may never use spoken language and can learn to communicate effectively in other ways.

  • Some may develop language and communication skills at later ages than their peers, and some may develop their language in a different order.

  • Some autistic children will develop spoken language in a typical way, but they may need support in other areas of communication, such as social communication or fluency.

If your child is autistic, a speech and language evaluation is a great idea to explore whether they could benefit from speech therapy services. If there are areas in which speech therapy could help them, getting started early (known as early intervention) can be hugely impactful for their growth and development!  

How speech therapy supports autistic children

Autistic children can have all kinds of strengths–the list is long! A few examples include: 

  • Having detailed knowledge in specific areas

  • Thinking and learning in a visual way

  • Being reliable

  • Having a great memory

  • Being honest and direct

  • Thinking creatively to problem-solve

At the same time, many autistic people do need support with communication. Speech therapy can be life-changing for autistic people as well as for their family members, especially in the areas of receptive and expressive language:

  • Receptive language means understanding what is being communicated to you.

  • Expressive language means communicating your thoughts and ideas to others.

Remember that “language” doesn’t just mean words. Think about all the other ways we communicate our thoughts. We use gestures, eye gaze, facial expressions, body language, and more. This all counts as communication!   

Some autistic children may need help with receptive and expressive language. They may have trouble with:

  • Understanding and using gestures like pointing and waving

  • Understanding words and talking

  • Following directions

  • Having conversations

They may repeat words or phrases that they’ve heard. (This is called echolalia, and we explain it below.) Or they may use challenging behaviors instead of words to communicate. Speech therapy can make a difference in all these areas. 

How spoken language might be different in autistic children

If your autistic child is talking, it’s important to keep in mind a few things. First, autistic children may develop speech and language differently, and in a different order than we’re expecting. That’s OK!

Some autistic children are gestalt language processors. This means that they first start speaking in multi-word “chunks,” or phrases. This is called echolalia. They may repeat what you say right after you say it, called immediate echolalia. For example, if you ask them “Do you want some juice?,” they may repeat, “Do you want some juice?” 

Gestalt processors may also repeat phrases they’ve heard, such as from their favorite TV show or song, much later after hearing them. This is called delayed echolalia. They’re using these phrases in a meaningful way, even if at first it doesn’t make sense to us!

Here’s an example of delayed echolalia. A child may skin their knee and say, “I have a diagnosis!” This comes from the TV show Doc McStuffins, and the character says this phrase when an animal is hurt and needs care. So your child is correctly associating that phrase with being hurt and needing help, even if the exact words may not make sense in the specific situation.

Over time, speech therapy can help your child break down and recombine those words into new phrases and sentences.   

How can autistic children who don’t speak communicate?

What if your child is nonverbal? When someone uses the term “nonverbal” or “nonspeaking,” this usually means that the person has challenges with expressive language. Talking is one form of expressive language, of course. But a nonverbal child can use expressive language by using augmentative or alternative communication, known as AAC. AAC can include gestures, picture communication boards, speech-generating devices, tangible objects, and more! 

Studies have shown that using AAC supports development of spoken language.

Some people use AAC temporarily. Others use it successfully throughout their life. As of 2018, about 25% of autistic people are nonspeaking or use words sparingly. Our job as speech therapists is to support our clients’ communication abilities in whatever ways work best for them and their families. We can continue to work on developing words while children are using AAC to communicate. In fact, studies have shown that using AAC supports development of spoken language!

It’s important for people who use AAC to take it with them everywhere so they can communicate in everyday situations. It’s estimated that approximately 5 million people in the United States could benefit from the use of AAC!

Other support for families with autistic children  

As your child grows in their communication abilities, they may need support with things that come easily for you. They may need extra time to learn things that other kids grasp quickly. Remember–that’s perfectly OK! A speech therapist can be a great support for your child on their journey to communicating in ways that feel authentic for them.

In addition to speech therapy, there are many resources available to support you and your family. You can look for local support groups in your area, check out events happening in your community, and of course, there’s a world of information available online.

It can be helpful to look for resources and information written by autistic people themselves. Many autistic young adults talk about their experiences on social media, like TikTok and Instagram, using the hashtag #ActuallyAutistic.

Another resource is the Autism Self-Advocacy Network at There are also Facebook groups where parents of autistic kids can ask autistic adults for their perspectives and advice. On Facebook, look for the groups Ask Me, I'm Autistic; Autistic Allies; and Ask Autistic Adults. 

An important note: We believe that when speaking about any community as a whole, the best approach is to prioritize that community’s voices, needs, and preferences. Within the larger autism community, the current language preference is identity-first (e.g., "autistic children"), which is why we use that language in our content. Expressable is committed to listening to and learning from the populations we serve. If and when their preferences change, we’ll adjust our approach accordingly.

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