Is Speech Delay in Toddlers a Sign of Autism?

Toddlers grow and change at a staggering rate, and every time you turn around, you probably notice something new that your child has mastered. During the early toddler years, most children begin to say words that eventually transition into phrases and sentences. While a language delay doesn't automatically mean your child has autism, it is a red flag for the disorder. If your toddler isn't saying any words yet, make an appointment with his pediatrician, who will run a gamut of tests to determine whether his language delay is because of autism or something else entirely.

Autism Facts

Autism prevents a child's brain from communicating with the rest of his body normally. The delays and behaviors this causes can lead to an inability to interact and communicate with other people and the world around him. The severity of an autism diagnosis varies, so one child with the disorder might fall on the high-functioning part of the spectrum while another child might be lower down on the spectrum. About 1 in 88 children are diagnosed with autism, most of them before the age of 3. More boys are diagnosed with the disorder than girls, as well.

Speech Milestones and Delays

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics', one symptom of autism is the failure to speak after the age of 16 months 1. By this age, toddlers have started babbling and parents can hear specific letter sounds in these early attempts to speak. Toddlers this age are also starting to imitate language sounds, as well as saying two or three simple words in addition to "mama" and "dada," the Kids Health website reports 4. By the age of 24 months, toddlers should be able to say about 50 words, including phrases such as "baby crying." If your toddler isn't able to do these things, he has a speech delay, which can be caused by a number of different things, autism being just one of them.

Additional Signs of Autism

If your toddler has a speech delay, contact his pediatrician right away. In the meantime, be on the lookout for other signs of autism so you can give his physician a complete picture of how your child is growing and behaving. The symptoms of autism vary, but usually include failure to make eye contact, inability to respond to parents and failure to point to objects in the environment. Many children with autism also rock, sway, twirl, flap their arms or engage in other repetitive motions. Autistic children thrive on routine and will often throw temper tantrums or scream if something happens that's not part of their normal routine. You might also notice that your toddler can't follow directions and that he's sensitive to lights and sounds.

Additional Causes of Speech Delay

In addition to autism, there are other reasons why your toddler isn't reaching speech milestones. Children with oral disorders, such as cleft palate, might have a more difficult time learning how to speak, according to the Kids Health site. Improper formation of the palate or the fold beneath the tongue, called the frenulum, can also lead to speech delays. Hearing impairment is another cause of speech delays, according to the Boston Children's Hospital website. If your toddler can't hear language, he's not going to be able to reproduce sounds to communicate either.