The difficulties that get overlooked when your autistic child is verbal


I am blessed with a daughter who has a large vocabulary and clear dictation. She can read fluently and make up complex sentences. She can remember accurate facts about things and repeat these readily. She can make choices, recall events and express her opinion.

As a result of all of the above it is assumed (wrongly) that her autism is mild, has limited impact on her life and something to be of little concern about.

People are too quick to assume if a child is verbal that everything is fine. 

Let me assure you that just because an autistic child can speak it does not mean their autism is mild.

Having speech does not mean a child necessarily understands what you are talking about.

Having speech does not mean there are no learning difficulties.

Being able to talk does not mean a child can effectively communicate.

Most of my autistic daughter’s speech is something called ‘complex echolalia’. She remembers sentences and phrases from things she has read or heard and uses them to allude people into thinking she is coping socially. This is a common coping mechanism in girls with autism. They become adept at hiding their difficulties by quoting from others be it from movies, books or friends. It took a highly skilled speech therapist to diagnose this in my child but once pointed out it was so obvious. When she was younger we could pick out phrases from Thomas Tank engine, or Peppa Pig or sentences from well read children’s books I would read to her at bedtime. Her vocabulary was not being used independently but more ‘cut and pasted’ from one situation to another. This is much more common with autism than people realise.

Your child may appear to be talking but is it spontaneous language or an echo of something they have heard many times before but do not actually understand?

People assume because my daughter can talk that she is socialising. ‘She chats to friends in the playground’ is a common phrase used by schools to assume a child with autism is socialising well. What in fact she is doing is listing every  ‘shopkin‘ she owns in alphabetic order or inappropriately telling another child they smell awful today! It is talking and it is to another child but it is not social reciprocal play and she is not making friends!

Many also assume because my child can speak that she can not possibly be anxious! That is a myth. Anxiety can manifest in so many ways and if asked a direct question my daughter will attempt to answer even if her anxiety is making her feel physically sick. Anxiety in verbal people with autism can actually make them say things that are considered rude or hurtful or even cause them to repeat the same phrase or question over and over. These are ‘coping mechanisms’ to help them cope with the extra stress of certain situations.

It is assumed because she is verbal that she understands emotional and intention. That is like saying because a baby can walk they can do ballet or play football! It is dangerous and worrying that even teachers assume because a child has the physical ability to speak that they are able to cognitively answer complex emotional questions like ‘why did Billy hit you? Or ‘how do you think I feel about you saying that?’ A verbal child with autism may still struggle with emotions and verbalising events that have happened. They still struggle with seeing things from other’s perspectives or being able to break down facial expressions. We need to remember they still have autism even if they can speak and not make assumptions based solely on the fact we appear to understand what they tell us.

My daughter can speak but don’t expect her to tell you if she is in pain or where. Don’t expect her to understand metaphors or euphemisms or jokes. She can not grasp double meanings and understands language completely literally. ‘The sky looks heavy today’ to her means it is about to fall down! Don’t stop her half way through her lists or even her sentence as you interrupt her echolalia and therefore her brain’s ability to decipher the world around her.

I am eternally grateful she can speak. I have a son who is entirely non verbal at 8 and I know the pain of never hearing your child talk.

However, I also know the pain of seeing my child’s difficulties ignored just because she is verbal.

We must look at autistic children individually. We need to look past the words they speak and see beyond the sounds we are able to understand. Under the surface of speech lies so many other difficulties that require ongoing support. 

If you know someone with autism who can speak never make the assumption their autism must be mild. There is so much more to autism than just being able to talk. Words hide much more than we ever think. 

180 thoughts on “The difficulties that get overlooked when your autistic child is verbal

  1. I am very interested in the term “complex echolalia” and am wondering if this term is being used in the fields of speech language, autism or neuroscience?

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  2. Thank you this is my experience with ASD in my life – it’s great to see it expressed – I too find people don’t understand the issues because my kids are so eloquent

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  3. Pingback: Las Dificultades que Pasan Inadvertidas Cuando tu Hijo/a con Espectro Autista es Verbal – AsperBúho

  4. This is my 3.5-year-old daughter. It is like I wrote this myself. My poor girl loves to talk and socialize with others but even at her age, she is too busy trying to people please that I just know it can get her in trouble later on because it got me in trouble.

    It is like I am watching myself grow up. We took her to an outreach center here to get her tested for autism and such and we were told she isn’t autistic because she has good eye contact (only with them, not us mind you) and she talks. Really? We are setting up an appointment for a good sit down chat with her doctor because there IS something there if people choose to see it or not. I can’t get my daughter the help she needs because the “experts” don’t see what is glaringly obviously wrong. Ugh. Great article!

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  5. Brilliant article that really captures my son’s behaviours. This has helped me to understand more and be able to explain it better to his school!

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  6. This is my daughter who after many years of pain and misdiagnosis was finally diagnosed wth Aspergers. Her affluent CT school rejected our requests They did nothing even after she made 100s of trips to the nurse’s office with anxiety and experienced an on-campus assault. She is alive. She has grown into a peaceful and productive young adult. Kindness, compassion, availability and so much patience was needed. Kevin Pelphrey and Simon Baron-Cohen among resarchers of unique plight of ASD/Aspy girls. I hope that the articulate meltdowns of aspy girls will no longer be misdiagnosed as BPD. I follow much research through Spectrumnews.org. No complete answers yet but hope that work is being done.

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  7. Pingback: Sunkus ir lengvas autizmai – Autisto tėtis

  8. Very instructive article, very good insights here.
    You seem very competent as a mother, and your sense of detail and clever hypothesis could be a great help in the professional environment.

    About echolalia, and that peculiar mental experience of a “meaningless” language you mentioned, my personal intuition is that there should be a way to break the mirror. Symetry is a divine thing : and reality is somehow a non-divine area of the being. There is a violence in the way that this reality offers us a freewill and a reason, but with a kind of limitation in the retroactive process : logic is stuck at a certain point, unable to find a reason. The mind can be captured in a loop. And it can learn many things in his introspective life, but be unable to express it, due to some problem in finding a start in the explanation, or just because when trying to reflect what others CAN or WILL think about it, it constantly adapts the strategy, and feels the will to recalculate the new possibility of reception of the message.

    I personally experienced echolalia at the age of 3 : I asked myself “why” about various things (like my feeling of a bad thing around me, about nothingness, or of an absurdity in life), and “why why ?” as a metalogical question, to a point that I add difficulties to interact, and was always hidding in the background of the school court. Then I experienced social conflict, due to my ability to analyze and demonstrate things (or at least, the will to do it, when others were just skipping that part because it’s “impossible” or “obnoxious”). People were angry at me because I was always seing mistakes, and bad behaviors, and trying to explain that to others in order to make justice : so they felt aggressed (that’s a joke, considering they were doing stupid thintgs), and begin to manipulate (that’s my opinion, now) with what is called “the mind theory” in psychology : “you may be thinking that we’re wrong, but you have to understand (sic) that we think this about you, too”. Despite the absurd result of this reversion, logically speaking, it induced tetany in my mind.

    This is a basic thing in humanity, usefull for its powerfull destructive process of the langage (because we have to prove how we know that we know, and it’s impossible at a certain point), leading to accusation of pretention (“if you do not submit to the idea you don’t know better than us, you’re a fool who think he’s better than others”). Not mentioning the physical or verbal threat of certain types of marginals, always insulting with no arguments and injecting emotional abtruse content in discussions to make others to begin an argumentative demonstration, and mock them for being “pretentious” in order to excite that inconscient dynamic.

    This is a so destructive process that litterally EVERYBODY submit to it, and stop reasoning, by fear of being perceived as pretentious and socially inadapted.

    After 15 years of hell at school, especially in mid-school, I finished alone in my appartment. Today, I’m 35, and due to all this pain, I plan to write books to share my many insights and hypothesis about the mind, the logic, the social interactions, bullying, etc. I think I’m a near-autistic person, and that low-level autists or high-level autists (Asperger) are not the only way to categorize things. There something else in between autism and neurotypism.

    And as to paraphrase your article : it’s not because I was able to talk during all my life, and to read, and to argumente and demonstrate, and to love philosophy and its cosmical mission to fight against madness, that I’m a normal person with no strange things in my cognitives process nor pain in my existence : I spent my life in lonelyness, fixing the walls and thinking intensively. I didn’t submit to the pain of my thoughts about the world, loathing to trade truth for a more comfortable emotional state. And that, regarding to neurotypism, is perceived as a madness. My opinion is that 90% of people are just badly endowed, and stopping reflective processes in a violent way in order to gain power. And this is organizing society and all the animal life.

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  9. YES! I have a 26 year old son who is verbal and perceived as high functioning. There is no such thing as “autism-light”. No, easy-autism. It just manifests itself in different ways. Language is not always functional. In some ways its worse. When my son’s kneecap dislocated he was complaining about his ankle hurting. So, they were looking at his ankle and it wasn’t until I arrived that I looked at the whole picture, and pointed at the very obviously dislocated knee. His brain was processing hurt but the words were jumbled. Excellent article. I will be sharing it.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Autism is very complex. The same way that one child may be using echolalia another autistic child may be able to express themselves with the repeated vocabulary and language to aid them in sharing with the world who they are. There are many in betweens.

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  11. This is my daughter. She has so many things to say but really struggles with putting them together. She uses bits and pieces of things she’s heard. And is so very literal. That’s one of the few things I’ve noticed that is true for most people with ASD.

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  12. I wonder what folks in this discussion think about socially/linguistically appropriate echolalia? My 3 year old is obviously copying and pasting phrases she’s seen in videos, but she’s using them in the correct way some of the time. For example, when walking if I am ahead of her she says, “Mom, wait for me!” or when I come home, “Mom, you came back!” (She also uses the ‘pasted’ language incorrectly. For example, she approached our 15 year old sleeping male cat and said, “He’s having babies but they’re gone!”) When she finds herself in a situation that requires independent, original language, like wanting a snack, she will say just one word or the bare minimum, like, “chips”. My point is that I praise her copied phrases when they fit the situation and I think it helps her language development.

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  13. Thank you so much. You put into words my everyday thoughts. Our daughter was just denied disability because she is verbal & has straight A’s in school. She is home schooled and I am working with her EVERY step. So again, thank you!

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  14. Where in California Fresno can I find a high skilled speech therapist…my daughter is verbal..was denied services through cvrc…I believe she is HFA…she walks..runs in circles,repeats my questions…sucks her fingers..shirts..sweater…blankets…eats playdough…loves to play with mud..sand..dirt..playdough.shaving cream,
    Paint. .jumps here nd there..doesn’t know danger…throws herself from couch, bed, ..she memorizes words,sentences from cartoons nd uses them, cant make friends…please someone help me!!!!!

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  15. omg it was like u where talking about my almost 9 year old riley. she does not understand people. i tell her i will b 50 this year hun. and i dont understand very many people. but thing are very black or whight for her. like at schoo. mom why do they act dum at school. i asked why. she said if kids just sit and shut up. they be done so fast. lol they see things so clear at times.

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  16. Pingback: Excellent Article (borrowed) regarding Speech – Autism Plus More

  17. Adult,75, and I’ve been there, folks; these days, I need a thesaurus. Here’s an little from something posted on another site a few years ago (more or less),

    //… I remember my language skills as always quite good; about age four, left alone and bored, in our quarters at Fort Dix, I walked down a hallway to another doctor’s quarters and knocked on the door: “I was just passing by and thought I’d drop by for a drink.” [NB: That’s what Mom and Dad would say.]

    I did get a soda, and such conversation as a 4-year old and a 34-year old might share. It was still boring.//

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  18. This is a fantastic read… the only thing I would disagree on or add is that it is not specific to girls. I have a 14 year old high functioning autistic son and this article is EXACTLY what he goes through every day. I’m so many ways advocating for support for him is that much more challenging because of it.

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  19. Thank you. As an intervention specialist who is currently and have worked with students with autism I have witnessed the “echo-isms”. With the middle school students that I have worked with, these phrases typically appear when they are experiencing a rise of anxiety, stressful events, and attempts to fit in with in their school/class setting. It is a struggle because I see this but yet I work with other adults who seem to think that the student can just snap out of their emotions and also seem to think I am a moron or that I am instigating the student into these situations/hang ups and causing these verbal out puts or causing the student to throw, hit objects around them when frustrated.
    Your words make me realize that I am not crazy and maybe, just maybe I have a deeper understanding than the others who seem to ridicule me, too.

    Liked by 1 person

  20. This is my daughter. Speaks all the time but when you listen it is not relaxant to present time or just verbal rambling. I love hearing her beautiful voice and made up fantasy stories. Strangers have no idea that what she says is mostly not true

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  21. Of my 3 autistic daughters, the oldest one has had palilalia all of her life. She usually communicates effectively, and does not have an intellectual delay. However, she does have a great deal of difficulties with executive function, memory, social and emotional function and life skills.
    “High functioning”, yet she (and probably her sisters as well) will be at home well into their 20s and probably 30s. I am not competing with the severity of other’s children, just pointing out that any autistic that has a ‘high functioining” label slapped on them often get overlooked and undersupported.

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  22. Amen. I am married to a HFA HUSBAND OF 26 years and all my children are HFA: 30 year old daughter, 24 year old son and 21 year old daughter. There are no support groups in Houston Texas or Psychiatrists and Psychologist or Therapist that specialise in this area. They are verbal, often successful in career, but have little to no social skills. This area of Autism is not addressed and there is not support for thparents a

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  23. I wish I had this information 25 years ago. It would have been so helpful to get my point across to my daughter’s teachers who never understood her Autism. ( She was diagnosed at the age of 10with Asperger’s Syndrome (as it was called then)

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  24. I’ve had this issue with my son. Its so frustrating. We went to a couple of places for diagnosis and they immediately ruled him out as having autism because he had words – but he still struggled to communicate in a meaningful way. Most recently we had this problem at school. Being verbal is a big reason they “didn’t see it,” (the autism) and thought he didn’t have communication issues. Yet, he demonstrated those issues over and over. I finally pulled him out and now we’re homeschooling. He was being bullied due to how the autism manifests (communication and socialization) and when he asked for help, people couldn’t tell that’s what he was doing. They couldn’t keep my son safe.

    I’m sorry you’re dealing with similar frustration, but glad professionals around you have recognized it.

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  25. I have 4 boys with autism and this describes my 24 year old son so well. His twin is very limited in speech and is cognitively impaired so he seemed very neurotypical. Now that he’s 24, I don’t know if he’ll ever get out of my basement. He was exited from Special ED at the end of 7th grade and missed out on so many services.

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