By age 3, most children have passed several predictable milestones on the path to learning language. One of the earliest is babbling. By the first birthday, a typical toddler says words, turns when he hears his name, points when he wants a toy, and when offered something distasteful, makes it very clear that his answer is no. By age 2, most children begin to put together sentences like “See doggie,” or “More cookie,” and can follow simple directions.
Research shows that about half of the children diagnosed with autism remain mute throughout their lives. Some infants who later show signs of autism do coo and babble during the first 6 months of life. But they soon stop. Although they may learn to communicate using sign language or special electronic equipment, they may never speak. Others may be delayed, developing language as late as age 5 to 8.
Those who do speak often use language in unusual ways. Some seem unable to combine words into meaningful sentences. Some speak only single words. Others repeat the same phrase no matter what the situation.
Some children with autism are only able to parrot what they hear, a condition called echolalia. Without persistent training, echoing other people’s phrases may be the only language that people with autism ever acquire. What they repeat might be a question they were just asked, or an advertisement on television. Or out of the blue, a child may shout, “Stay on your own side of the road!” — something he heard his father say weeks before. Although children without autism go through a stage where they repeat what they hear, it normally passes by the time they are 3.
People with autism also tend to confuse pronouns. They fail to grasp that words like “my,” “I,” and “you,” change meaning depending on who is speaking. When Alan’s teacher asks, “What is my name?” he answers, “My name is Alan.”