Improving the Average Speech Progress of an Autistic Toddler

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What is Average Speech Progress?

Beginning at birth, babies are constantly checked by their parents and pediatricians to make sure they are meeting certain milestones. For example:

  • By six months, many babies begin to babble, which is one of the first steps toward learning to speak.
  • By twelve to fifteen months most toddlers can say one or more words when naming common objects and people, and follow one-step directions.
  • Between eighteen to twenty-four months typical young children should have 50 or more words and be able to make simple sentences using two to three words.
  • By age two most children should have more words than their parent can count and be speaking in complete sentences. This progression of learning speech and language is known in layman terms as average speech progress.

What Impacts a Child’s Speech Rate?

Most parents are blissfully oblivious to most speech milestones. It is usually when a child fails to make progress that parents become aware. If a child fails to babble, name objects, or speak in short sentences by age two, it may be an indication of another problem. Many parents of autistic children cite lack of speech development as one of the first signs of a problem.

One of the first areas pediatricians will examine in children experiencing speech delay is hearing. Hearing impairment is a leading cause of speech delay in toddlers. If hearing is determined to be normal, then the doctors will check for other medical conditions. If physical impairments are ruled out, then the child will be referred to a psychologist or other mental health professionals.

Conditions such as hearing loss, autism, and pdd-nos can severely impact a child’s ability to acquire and use meaningful language.


Sussman, Fern, More Than Words: Helping Parents Promote Communication and Social Skills in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder, The Hanen Centre, Toronto, 2004_._

Nelson, Amy “Delayed Speech or Language Development” October 2010.

Ways to Improve Speech Progress

In her book, More Than Words: Helping Parents Promote Communication and Social Skills in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder, Fern Sussman focuses on increasing the language skills of toddlers through a four-step approach. Sussman also identifies four stages of communication in autistic children. She calls them the Own Agenda stage, Requestor stage, Early Communicator stage, and the Partner stage. This article will focus on the Early Communication and Partner stages.

In these stages the autistic toddler may be capable of:

  • longer social interactions
  • interactions with familiar people
  • gesturing to get your attention
  • understands simple sentences or gestures
  • say hi and bye
  • echolalia ( repeating what is said to her to make a request)
  • use words or other means of communication to express wants and needs
  • ask and answer questions
  • express feelings
  • have a short conversation
  • repair or fix verbal mistakes during a conversation

4 Steps to Improving Average Speech Progress of an Autistic Toddler

Sussman focuses on four strategies when working on speech: say less, stress, go slow, and show.

Say Less

Simplify what you say by using short one word, clear phrases, or sentences. For example, if you want your child to stop watching television you might say,

" Anna, t.v. off!"

Make sure you are communicating at his communication level. If your child uses picture cue cards, show him a television to help him understand what you are saying. If he gestures, clearly point to the television and the power button. Always make sure your child’s attention is on you when you’re speaking. They should be looking at you (or the object if you’re pointing) and listening.


When talking to your child exaggerate key words. Sussman recommends placing your key words at the end of sentences. Most people tend to remember the last thing they heard.

For example, “Ben, Look! (point at the object) airplane!"

Raise your voice. Use a sing song voice. Do something that will get your child’s attention. Gradually fade this techniques as your child begins to repeat what you say or show she understands.

Go Slow

When you are naming people, places, and objects pause between each word and phrase. Speak naturally but a bit slower. This gives your child time to absorb what you are saying. Make sure she looks at the object before you repeat the word or phrase. Find opportunities to practice the new words often, but don’t introduce too many words at once. Give your daughter time to process what she’s learning. Don’t be discouraged if she’s not repeating the new words right away. It may be days, weeks, or even months before she repeats the words. Her progress will depend on the severity of her disability and the amount of time you work together.


If you’re playing a naming game, try to use real objects or photographs. Write the name of the person or object on the picture. Make word cards if you’re using real objects. Many autistic children have very good memories and will begin to form a relationship between the picture and written word which can help when she learns to read. Also, include actions and gestures to demonstrate what you are saying since this is an integral part of nonverbal communication.

Communicating with Your Child

The average speech progress of an autistic toddler may match that of a typical toddler. He may easily learn to speak and use language appropriately. Sadly, in most instances, autistic toddlers lag behind their peers in acquiring speech.

Even though your child may have little or no speech, there are alternatives to aid her in communicating her wants and needs. Speech may be very slow in coming, but it can be achieved. It will take lots of time, effort, love and patience on your part.