Some of the struggles of children living with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) are the social and communication impairments that will affect them for the rest of their lives. But a British study found that teaching children with autism to utilize inner speech and talk things through in their heads could help them live more independently later in life.

“Most people will ‘think in words’ when trying to solve problems, which helps with planning or particularly complicated tasks,” said lead author David Williams. “Young, typically developing children tend to talk out loud to guide themselves when they face challenging tasks. However, only from about the age of 7 do they talk to themselves in their head and, thus, think in words for problem-solving. How good people are at this skill is in part determined by their communication experiences as a young child.”

The Durham University researchers found that not thinking in words “is strongly linked to the extent of someone’s communication impairments, which are rooted in early childhood.” The results suggested that children with ASD “could, for example, benefit from verbal learning of their daily schedule at school rather than using visual timetables as is currently a common approach.”

The study consisted of high-functioning adults with ASD and 16 normally developing adults who had to complete a task involving moving disks on multicolored pegs in as few moves as possible:

“This type of complex planning task is helped by ‘talking to yourself in your head.’ The participants did the task under normal conditions as well as under an ‘articulatory suppression’ condition whereby they had to repeat out loud a certain word throughout the task — in this case, either the word ‘Tuesday’ or ‘Thursday.’  If someone uses inner speech to help them plan, articulatory suppression prevents them from doing so and will detrimentally affect their planning performance, whereas it will have little impact on the planning performance of someone who doesn’t use inner speech. The results showed that whilst almost 90 percent of normally developing adults did significantly worse on the Tower of London task when asked to repeat the word, only a third of people with autism were in any way negatively affected by articulatory suppression during the task. This suggests that, unlike neurotypical adults, participants with autism do not normally use inner speech to help themselves plan.”

By teaching children with autism to talk things through in their head, the researchers suggest, their chances of an independent, flexible life could increase.

Adds Williams, “These results show that inner speech has its roots in interpersonal communication with others early in life, and it demonstrates that people who are poor at communicating with others will generally be poor at communicating with themselves. It also shows that there is a critical distinction between being able to express yourself verbally and actually using silent language for problem-solving.  For example, the participants with ASD in our study were verbally able, yet did not use inner speech to support their planning.”

Source: Durham University

Heather Rudow is a staff writer for Counseling Today. Email her at hrudow@counseling.org.

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