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Speech Delay vs. Autism: Identifying the Differences

Mar 12th, 2024 | by Laura Midday

Laura Midday

March 12th, 2024

Understanding the Difference Between Speech Delay vs. Autism

This post explores the similarities and differences between speech delay vs. autism spectrum disorder (ASD). It covers the common signs of each and the importance of early intervention for both conditions that can affect children’s development. While autism and speech delay can present similar symptoms, they are very different.

Typical Speech Development in Babies/Toddlers

Below is a summary of typical speech/language development in infants and toddlers. Caregivers should remember that language involves both expressive and receptive skills. Expressive language refers to how a child communicates their wants, needs, and thoughts. Receptive language is how a child understands others’ communication.

Speech Milestones by Age (Months)

The speech milestones listed below include both expressive and receptive considerations.

  • 4-6 months: Producing consonant sounds in babbling (e.g., “da”), using sounds to get attention, listening and responding when spoken to, reacting to sudden noises/sounds
  • 7-9 months: Imitating sounds, using simple gestures, reacting to their name, following simple commands
  • 10-12 months: Meaningfully using “mama” or “dada”, producing strings of jargon with varying pitch (it might sound like the child is asking a question, but their speech is gibberish), responding to “no”, looking toward objects/people that others point to
  • 13-18 months: May use 5-10 words (at a minimum), combining sounds and gestures, understanding at least 50 words, demonstrating an interest in pictures and pointing to them during shared book reading
  • 19-24 months: Beginning to combine words, naming pictures and objects, making animal sounds, identifying 3-5 body parts on themselves, following two-step directions

Related reading: 18 Month Speech Milestones and 5 Strategies to Help

Signs of Speech Delay

It is important to remember that every child is different and develops language differently. Below are some common characteristics of speech delay. If you are concerned about your child’s development, reach out to their pediatrician for additional guidance.

  • Not meeting typical language development milestones on time (see above)
  • No babbling or babbling containing minimal variation in consonant sounds
  • Not using hand gestures (pointing/waving) OR using gestures instead of vocalizing
  • Not understanding simple instructions
  • Not combining words into two- and three-word utterances
  • Mispronouncing words in a way that significantly reduces their ability to be understood by others (understanding <50% of the child’s speech)

Signs of ASD

Below are common characteristics of ASD; however, this is not a comprehensive list. If you are unsure if your child is exhibiting signs of ASD, Autism Speaks has a free screening tool for caregivers to complete. It’s called the Modified Checklist for Autism in Toddlers, Revised (M-CHAT-R).

  • Sudden regression of skills such as babbling, talking, gesturing, following directions, etc.
  • Speech/language delay (i.e., not meeting typical milestones listed earlier in this post)
  • Selectively responding to their name
  • Reduced eye contact
  • Not following simple instructions
  • Not sharing attention (e.g., shifting gaze between a toy and a communication partner)
  • Preferring to play alone
  • Playing with toys in an unexpected and/or repetitive way

Next Steps: Early Intervention Is Best Practice

While speech delay and autism (ASD) have unique characteristics from one another, they can be related. Due to toddlers’ rapid brain development, the earlier s/he receives therapy, the more s/he will benefit from intervention. Caregivers should seek advice from professionals if they have any concerns about their child’s development.

“Wait and see” as an approach should be challenged.

If you have concerns, keep seeking advice, second opinions, and answers. As a caregiver, you are the ultimate expert on your child.

Find Additional Resources in the NAPA Blog:

About the Author

Laura is a pediatric speech-language pathologist at NAPA Center Austin. She is passionate about collaborating with families to empower them to best support their loved ones’ communication abilities. When she is not working, Laura enjoys spending time with her dog, Pepper, being active, and watching reality TV.

About NAPA Center

At NAPA Center, we take an individualized approach to pediatric speech therapy because we understand that no two children are alike. We provide the best and most innovative therapies from around the world all under one roof at our multiple clinics located throughout the US, UK, and Australia.

TAGS: Blogs, SLP
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