Children with a diagnosis of Autism frequently have associated feeding, speech and language difficulties – these difficulties are symptoms of Autism and not the core deficits. Children with Autism have difficulty developing neural connectivity in a dynamic manner through experiences, relationship, and thinking. This core deficit contributes to atypical development in the SOCIAL, COMMUNICATION, and SENSORY areas. This means that children with Autism have different neurological responses that affect their ability to relate to others, act, speak and think.
The sensory development of children with Autism is perhaps the most puzzling and frustration aspect of their neurological differences. They, more often than not, have sensory needs that are interpreted negatively such as hand flapping, spinning, jumping, and toe-walking. They also may have unusual sensory seeking behaviors and would explore their body fluid- such as saliva, and their environment such as car, sand, water, in ways sometimes considered socially inappropriate.
Feeding Challenges and Autism
Children with Autism can be extremely sensitive and defensive to how food smells, tastes and behaves before and after it enters the mouth. As food changes in its form, temperature, and texture in the hand and later in the mouth, children with Autism often have a hard time tolerating and managing these changes. Their adverse responses are frequently visceral- it’s a fight or flight response.
This can mean that they have trouble transitioning from baby food to table food, are very selective and limited in food choices, and/or are offended by the smallest change in food they typically love. The self-imposed restriction on oral textures can effect these children’s ability to develop a wide range of oral movements and may result in delayed maturation or absence of effective chewing and cup/straw drinking skills and they often would not pick up food by their hands, making self-feeding a nightmare, and result in delayed learning in the use of utensils.
Verbal Apraxia and Autism
Verbal apraxia, sometimes known as verbal dyspraxia, is a motor speech disorder characterized by reduced ability to coordination oral-facial muscles to form speech sounds and words. Childhood Verbal Apraxia could be a condition a child is born with, or as a result of a brain injury like birthing trauma, cerebral palsy or stroke in adults.
Many children with Autism also have verbal apraxia. It is a common co-existing disorder. However, not all children with Autism who are non-verbal, have verbal apraxia. Some children with Autism do not develop speech and verbal language because of their social and communication differences caused by the underlying Autistic neuropathology.
The unique challenge of children with Autism and Verbal Apraxia is the significant scarcity of opportunities to help children learn to vocalize with intent to communicate. Learning to talk has two important aspects: the motoric act of talking, using the right muscles the right way, and the function of talking, of figuring out who to talk to and what to talk about. The Social and Communication differences in children with Autism place them at an obvious disadvantage in learning to talk. Hence, while specialized speech treatments for Verbal Apraxia are no doubt beneficial to these children, emphasis should be placed on helping them learn the act of interaction and communication.