Milestones of Autistic Children: Crawling, Walking, and Talking
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Milestones of Autistic Children: Crawling, Walking, and Talking

For all children every milestone achieved is a testament to the unique and intricate process unfolding within each young mind. For autistic children, this journey may present a distinct pattern, with some reaching developmental milestones like crawling, walking, and talking later than their neurotypical peers. Let’s have a look into the fascinating realm of Autism and explore why some autistic children might crawl, walk, and talk later, shedding light on the underlying factors contributing to this unique way of developing.

1. Individual Pacing:

Child development is not a one-size-fits-all journey. Each child, whether neurotypical or autistic, has a unique timeline for achieving milestones. Autistic children, like any other children, follow their own pacing. This individual rhythm might lead them to focus on one set of skills before they progress to others. Like some neurotypical children might focus on talking earlier than walking, autistic children might prioritise other areas before crawling or talking.

2. Neurodevelopmental Complexity:

The human brain is a remarkable entity, with a bewildering array of interconnected processes that lead to us achieving our developmental milestones. Autistic children often have variations in “neural wiring”, which can impact the balance between gross motor skills (crawling, walking) and fine motor skills. Speech and language acquisition falls under fine motor skills and may be momentarily disrupted due to the divergent neurological pathways at play in autism.

2. Sensory Processing Differences:

One of the hallmarks of autism is altered sensory processing. Autistic children often experience sensory stimuli differently than their neurotypical peers. This heightened or diminished sensitivity can influence a child’s desire or ability to engage in activities like crawling and walking. The sensation of movement while crawling or walking, for instance, might be overwhelming for some autistic children, causing them to either avoid or delay these activities.

3. Visual-Spatial Abilities:

Autistic children and adults frequently display excellent visual-spatial abilities. This strength might lead some children to focus more on activities that engage these skills, potentially delaying their engagement with activities like walking or talking. As they navigate their environment and process information visually, they might naturally invest more time in activities that stimulate this particular cognitive ability and strength.

4. Communication Challenges:

For many autistic children, speaking can be a really complex and difficult endeavour. Communication delays are a common feature of autism. This can affect both receptive and expressive language development. While some children might be physically capable of crawling or walking, they may not yet have the tools to communicate their desires and intentions. This leads to a temporary focus on non-speaking forms of expression. This does not mean that they do not communicate at all. But autistic individuals often start out using jargoning or echolalia as a form of communication as well as behaviours and physical forms of communication.

5. Executive Functioning and Motor Skills:

Executive functioning, or abilities for planning, organising, and carrying out tasks, can vary in autistic children. These skills are crucial for activities like crawling, walking, and talking, which need coordination and planning. About 40% of autistic persons have a motor planning difficulty.

6. Intense Interests and Routines:

Autistic children often develop intense interests in specific subjects, sometimes to the exclusion of other activities. These interests might become their primary mode of engagement. They might side-line milestones like crawling, walking, or talking. The mostly rigid adherence to routines and preferences might cause them to allocate more time to their preferred activities. This delays their engagement with other developmental tasks.

How can Speech and Language Therapy help:

Support and Intervention:

Early intervention and regular Speech and Language Therapy play a pivotal role in the developmental journey of autistic children. Therapies tailored to individual needs can aid in bridging the gaps between milestones. Occupational therapy, for example, can help address sensory sensitivities and motor skill challenges that might impact crawling and walking. Speech therapy can help communication development, gradually bridging the gap between non-verbal expressions and spoken language.

For example, we now know that echolalia or jargoning of longer phrases with intonation, repeating scripts from favourite tv shows or songs have many meanings and communicative functions. For example, a child who utters long strings of echolalic utterances, often difficult to understand, might want to do any one of the following:

  • Comment
  • greet
  • ask a question
  • make a request
  • express surprise
  • negate something.

We now understand that the way to support a child with echolalia is to acknowledge all utterances and try and find out what the meaning is behind these scripts. This is very supportive. Over time it will lead a child to move on to understanding and saying more clear and self-generated language. For more information about this Natural Language Acquisition here are some other great websites for you to look at:

Conclusion

In conclusion, the journey of an autistic child’s development is a testament to the uniqueness and complexity of the human mind. The delays or differences in achieving milestones like crawling, walking, and talking can be attributed to a range of factors, including

  • neurodevelopmental intricacies,
  • sensory processing variations,
  • and communication challenges.

It’s crucial to recognise that these delays are not indicative of a lack of potential, but rather a manifestation of the intricate interplay between an autistic child’s strengths and challenges. By embracing these differences and providing tailored support, we can help each autistic child unfold their potential at their own pace.

Do get in touch if you would like to book an appointment where we can explore how to help your child develop and thrive

Do get in touch if you would like to book an appointment where we can explore how to help your child develop and thrive


Find a speech and language therapist for your child in London. Are you concerned about your child’s speech, feeding or communication skills and don’t know where to turn? Please contact me and we can discuss how I can help you or visit my services page.

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Rethinking the PECS Approach
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Rethinking the PECS Approach

I want to talk about some concerns of SLTs, parents and increasingly autistic adults who explain to us how this communication method did not really work so well and why.

What is PECS in a nutshell:

PECS (Picture Exchange Communication System) is based on the idea of exchanging pictures in return for desired items. For more advanced users, it is used to communicate different functions such as emotions, comments, negations using the exchange of a sentence strip. It was founded on the principles of Applied Behavioural Analysis (ABA).

How does that look in practice?

In my experience, having been trained in the approach myself, the overall aim is eventually for the child to spontaneously go and get their picture book (PECS book), open it, look through a range of pages to select the correct picture of what they want to have or say, then go and find their communication partner, and finally place that picture onto the communication partner’s outstretched palm to be rewarded with an item or with a response of some sort. Or the child selects a range of pictures to create a little sentence, such as: ‘the blue fish swims in the sea’, ‘the red bird flies in the sky’ or ‘I see a red bird’ for example. This can be part of a structured table top activity.

The system follows a series of phases, starting from simple picture exchanges to eventually construction of sentences using symbols. PECS’s aim is to promote communication initiation and reduce frustration for those who struggle with speech.

So far so good one might say, why not? Before I go into the various concerns, I would want to add my own working experience with PECS, and whilst it is my opinion, I would say I have NEVER seen a working PECS book being used spontaneously!

My experience

I have seen attempts of stages 1 and 2 done quite well, in schools, and where people knew that I was coming in “to have a look at how PECS is working with child X”. Yes, in those instances an effort was made of course to try and show me how it worked. I must add that have never been very impressed. I cannot recall it used for any other items than: biscuits/quavers/crisps/ raisins and bubbles/puzzle pieces or spinners.

If we want to see a child trained to exchange for these items in a structured setting, i.e., the child sits at a little table with the adult sitting opposite enticing the child with one or other item, then yes that can be done successfully. I have seen children exchange 25 pictures with a crisp on it, for said crisp and they might have asked for another 25 of those crisps given half the chance. Yes. Good. But. I have yet to see a child go to their PECS book and go through all the motions that I mentioned above to get a crisp. In school they don’t need to: they know that crisps are only available when the PECS book is being practised. Otherwise, let’s be honest, it’s fruit at 10.30 am!

So, they don’t get a spontaneous opportunity to ask for highly motivating items as that is not how school works, is it? ‘SIR! Can I have a crisp?’ At 10.02am, in the middle of maths? Didn’t think so… So in reality this does not get practised in my experience.

A few concerns in no particular order:

Limited Generalisation

One issue often raised is the limited generalisation of skills learned through PECS. The structured nature of the program may result in a child only being able to communicate effectively within the specific contexts where they were taught to use the system (as I suggest above: crisps: yes, please let’s do the PECS for it). This limitation can pose challenges when trying to apply communication skills in new or unstructured/spontaneous situations.

Lack of Spontaneity

Critics suggest that PECS can sometimes lead to scripted and less spontaneous communication. This is also what I have observed. Since the method is designed to follow a structured progression, there is a concern that individuals might struggle to initiate communication outside of the established framework, potentially hindering their ability to engage in more natural interactions.

Narrow range of communication functions being practised

While PECS is quite successful in focusing on requesting and naming items, there are many other important communication functions, such as expressing emotions, asking questions, giving opinions or greetings for instance. We can argue that a communication core board where we have a whole range of different core words available lends itself much better to practising a range of communicative functions.

The Pictures are movable

They are attached to the book via Velcro. They are constantly being picked and exchanged and then returned to the book. This means that the pictures tend to be always in different places. This goes against the motor planning that takes place when one is learning a new skill: imagine you want to learn to touch type and the letters always move and are at different places? How can you be quick about finding a letter? You can never get to “automatic” with this type of approach.

Communication is not taught via behavioural means

Only if you say “banana” in the way that I dictate that you should will you get a piece of banana. Who does that? Nobody. Typically, child points to the counter where there is a banana and says: ‘ba’ or ‘ana’ and mother/carer will look over there and say ‘oh banana! You want a banana? Ok there you go have a piece.’ Or something like it. Mother will not say: ‘SAY BANANA or else you won’t get it.’ Child hears mum saying ‘Banana’ each time and with time will point and say ‘banana’ or ‘I want-a-nana’ or something. This is how communication is learned: through the adult modelling it cheerfully all day long and the child hearing it and then gradually copying it.

One other gripe I personally have but I am reliably informed by all my parents that they share this about PECS:

IT IS SO LABOUR INTENSIVE!

There are 10, 50, 100’s of little pictures that first of all need laminating… then velcroing, then finding and replacing. As I said above, it’s a constant moveable feast for one, but also you LOSE them. Yep. You want to find the picture for “trampoline”. ‘Where is it? I saw it yesterday… We had it outside when we practised you asking for the trampoline. I am sure we put it back? Where is it??? Ok. We need to print off a new one.’

It is also labour intensive for the first stage where you need to have TWO adults to ease the exchange (pick up and release of picture into the communication partner’s hand). Who has two adults available for what can be weeks until the child is able to pick up and release by themselves?

YEP. So it’s really not for me you can tell! I much prefer Core boards (see my previous post on using one) or electronic speech generating AAC devices like GRID, or LAMP or TOUCHCHAT. These are all great to use and there is good support out there for introducing these.

Finding a Balance

While the concerns surrounding the PECS approach are valid, it’s fair to note that the method also has some merits. There is anecdotal evidence of many individuals who have successfully improved their communication skills and quality of life through PECS. But, finding a balance between using PECS as a stepping stone and ensuring the development of more comprehensive and SPONTANEOUS communication is key.

As educators and therapists, we need to extend the focus beyond requesting and labelling by incorporating symbols that represent emotions, actions, and more complex ideas. This expansion encourages a broader range of communication functions. When the time is right, gradually transitioning from PECS to more advanced communication methods such as Core boards or electronic AAC tools and speech-generating devices is the way forward.

We want to value all communication equally and our approach ought to be playful and child-led and to focus on intrinsic motivation instead of extrinsic rewards and reinforcers.

If you have any questions or if you are looking for a therapist who endorses play-based and child-led therapy approaches, please do reach out.


Find a speech and language therapist for your child in London. Are you concerned about your child’s speech, feeding or communication skills and don’t know where to turn? Please contact me and we can discuss how I can help you or visit my services page.

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