Speech pathology and autism – what’s the connection?

24 AUGUST 2023

Speech pathology and autism – what’s the connection?

In Speech Pathology Week 2023 (Sunday 20 to Saturday 26 August) a leading Charles Sturt University expert explains the increased diagnosis of autism and the role of speech pathology.

By Associate Professor in Speech and Language Pathology Sarah Verdon (pictured, inset) in the Charles Sturt University School of Allied Health, Exercise and Sports Sciences.

‘Why does everyone have autism these days?’

I’m sure that is a question you have heard asked by many in recent years. And yes, it’s true the diagnosis of autism has increased significantly, with estimates now sitting at around one in 70 Australians.

But perhaps this increase is not for the reasons you think.

Why are autism diagnoses increasing?

While it’s true that the diagnosis of autism is increasing, that doesn’t necessarily mean the real prevalence of autism in the community has changed. Rather, it is our understanding of autism that has changed.

Traditionally there has been a very narrow view of what it meant to be autistic.

This stereotype was largely characterised as a male, either non-speaking or robotically monotonous, lacking empathy or insight into social situations with a fixation on numbers. This stereotype is frequently depicted in films like Rain Man (1988) and TV shows such as The Big Bang Theory.

While these features are characteristics of some autistic people, like all stereotypes, this depiction of autism only narrows our understanding of the autistic experience and diminishes our understanding of the capacity of autistic individuals.

This presence of stereotype has originated from two key issues in autism research; the focus on males, and the fact that most research on autism is designed, undertaken and interpreted by people who are not autistic.

In recent times these two issues are being increasingly addressed, which has led to exponential growth in our understanding of the autistic experience from multiple viewpoints, most importantly from the viewpoint of autistic people themselves.

Females and autism

We now know that autism in females can present quite differently than in males, with females exhibiting far higher rates of ‘masking behaviours’, meaning they hide their autistic behaviours to fit in with neurotypical norms.

Females with autism are also more likely to be able to imitate their peers to mimic neurotypical behaviours, have different play styles and are more able to read non-verbal communication cues than autistic males.

It is often more common for autistic females to become aware of their differences later in adolescence while challenges for boys are more often apparent in early childhood.

A greater understanding of autism in females has led to increased diagnosis of girls and women who would have previously slipped under the radar and struggled with their differences, rather than receiving the support they need to participate in their daily lives.

Insights from the autistic community

Increasing insights from the autistic community have also expanded our understanding of common autistic features.

The communication of this information through social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram and TikTok has given voice to autistic people, enabling them to share their experiences in a way that could not be done through traditional media and research.

Engaging with such content has helped many people to identify their own autistic behaviours and to seek assessment, diagnosis and support services.

The increased prevalence of autism is not necessarily a cause for concern; instead, for many, it is a cause for celebration.

Increasing awareness around autism is helping dispel myths and remove the stigma associated with autism, enabling autistic people to embrace their authentic selves and to advocate for the support they need to reach their potential when functioning in society.

What do speech pathologists do?

In Speech Pathology Week it’s important to recognise that speech pathologists play a very important role in supporting autistic people.

While being autistic in and of itself may not be a disability, there are many barriers that prevent autistic people from being able to thrive in a world that is designed for neurotypical (non-autistic) people.

Many of these barriers are related to communication. While some autistic people are extremely verbal, intelligent and great at reading, writing and speaking, others find these areas to be significantly challenging and need regular support from a speech pathologist.

For others, the challenges may be related to social communication in relation to understanding and expressing emotions, forming and maintaining relationships, and navigating complex, often highly nuanced communication environments such as schools or workplaces.

Speech pathologists can support autistic people to thrive in their environments by supporting communication across the lifespan.

Speech Pathology Australia recently released a new position statement exploring the latest research in the field of autism, to guide practice and advocate for the rights of autistic people.

What help can you get?

If you think you or someone you know might be autistic, once diagnosed you can receive financial support through the NDIS. For children under nine years, you can receive NDIS early approach support without a diagnosis if your child has needs in two or more areas.

To find a speech pathologist in your local area search here.

Learn more about studying speech pathology at Charles Sturt University.

Media Note:

To arrange interviews with Associate Professor Sarah Verdon who is based in Albury-Wodonga, contact Bruce Andrews at Charles Sturt Media on 0418 669 362 or news@csu.edu.au

Associate Professor Sarah Verdon is also Co-chair International Expert Panel on Multilingual Children’s Speech and Co-lead Early Childhood Interdisciplinary Research Scheme and is an Australian representative to the World Health Organization Development Group for Autism.

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