Every child with autism needs speech therapy. Impairment in communication is part of the diagnosis. The amount of speech therapy required for each child may differ depending on the severity of the delay, but it will surely be one of the required autism treatments. Some autistic children never speak verbally, but that doesn't mean they can't benefit from this therapy. When paid for privately this and all therapies can be very expensive.
Right off the bat I should note that if your child has also been diagnosed with apraxia or other speech disorder you may wish to visit ApraxiaSpeaks.com for more info about that particular disorder.
The Speech and Language Pathologist or SLP will be the person who works with your child. When my son Braden first began seeing a speech therapist he was non-verbal, he had no words. Yes, he had sounds like "Ehhhhhhhhhhhh" and "Ahhhhhhhhhh" but no words. At that time he was 2-years-old. The speech therapist used a wide array of toys to get Braden's first words out. We still owe this therapist a great debt of gratitude that we can never repay. Her work with Braden was incredible. She also trained us, as his parents, to do the right things at home. After all, we're with him all the time. Braden's speech therapy continues today both at school and at home.
One of the first things we learned was to stop giving our autistic son shortcuts. As hard as it was we had to force ourselves to make him communicate. In the beginning he wasn't expected to actually speak, but maybe to point or gesture, depending on where he was developmentally.
Often parents and even siblings know what the child wants before he asks for it. We had to pretend like we didn't know. We were his in-home speech therapists. Sometimes when Braden wanted something he would throw a fit to get it. It was hard, but we had to wait until he communicated appropriately before we gave him the item he wanted. We had to stop enabling him and we had to start rewarding him for communicating properly.
My son's first word was "dada". When he was younger, under age 3, he was a daddy's boy. And I must have said "dada" to him a million times before he finally said it. The first word I remember his speech thapist getting out of him was "go". She knew that most kids love little wind up toys. She would wind one up and count to three and Braden learned to say "go" if he wanted her to release it.
Fading the Prompt
A prompt, as it pertains to speech therapy, is a gesture or action used to solicit communication. When an autistic child is first beginning to use words the prompt used may be a combination of your wide eyes and saying the first few words you expect your child to say. For example, let's say your son wants a drink. You know he wants a drink. He knows the words to use but he is reluctant to use them because pointing and throwing a fit has worked for him fine in the past. But now you're trying to get him to speak. So you may prompt him by widening your eyes, looking square at him, and saying "I want a..." and then waiting for him. Patience is important. He may say "drink!" And that's when you reward him with a drink and lots of praise.
Fading the prompt means to use your gesture or action less and less, fade it out. As time goes on your child will learn what to say in different circumstances. Using the example above, a few months later you may only need to look at your child with a wide eyed inquisitive look and then he remembers to say "I want a drink" all on his own. That's fading the prompt.
At age 6, generally the only prompt we use at home is quiet patience. Braden likes to exclude the pronoun "I' whenever we let him. He'll say, "want some cookies." instead of "I want some cookies." I usually reply, "No thank you. I don't want any cookies." even though I know he wasn't asking me if I wanted cookies. The other thing my wife and I do when he excludes "I" is ignore him. He knows what to say and he says it after a second or two. His prompt has all but faded in that situation. We know that he knows what he's supposed to say and we know he is capable of saying it. Know what I mean? That was a tongue twister!
Use Every Opportunity
The speech therapist works with you, the parents, as well as your child. Using all his/her knowledge as a speech and language pathologist isn't going to help much if you're doing something totally different at home, or worse yet, doing nothing at home. You will become educated and you'll learn to "generalize" everything at home that your child learns while in therapy sessions. Consistency is important. Your autistic child needs to learn that this stuff isn't just expected of him while in therapy, but also at home, school, the store, and everywhere else.
My wife and I went through the Hanen program called More Than Words. It taught us a lot about different techniques we could use to help our son. As the Hanen website puts it, "The programís philosophy is that because parents are the most important people in a childís life, they are the best people to help the child learn to communicate. Most important of all, More Than Words helps builds positive interactions between parent and child, reducing frustration for both and increasing the child’s opportunities to learn to communicate in real life situations." I couldn't have said it better myself! I'm not endorsing the Hanen program, but just pointing out that programs like this exist and they can be very helpful.
You'll learn to use everyday situations as opportunities to get your child with autism to communicate appropriately. It's not always easy. But it gets easier over time and you begin to make it a habit.