Learning to ‘talk things through in your head’ may help people with autism


New research conducted at City University London.

12 March 2012


Teaching children with autism to 'talk things through in their head' may help them to solve complex day-to-day tasks, which could increase the chances of independent, flexible living later in life, according to new research published in Development and Psychopathology.

The study, conducted at City University London, alongside Durham University and the University of Bristol, found that the mechanism for using 'inner speech' or 'talking things through in their head' is intact in children with autism but not always used in the same way as typically developing children do.

The psychologists found that the use or lack of, thinking in words is strongly linked to the extent of someone's communication impairments which are rooted in early childhood.

However, the researchers suggest teaching and intervention strategies for children targeted at encouraging inner speech may make a difference. These strategies, which include encouraging children to describe their actions out loud, have already proven useful for increasing mental flexibility among typically developing children.

It is also suggested that children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) could, for example, benefit from verbal learning of their daily schedule at school rather than using a visual timetable as is currently a common approach.

Lead author, Dr David Williams, lecturer in the Department of Psychology at Durham University conducted the research while completing a fellowship at City University London. He said: "Most people will 'think in words' when trying to solve problems, which helps with planning or particularly complicated tasks. Young typically developing children tend to talk out loud to themselves to guide themselves when they face challenging tasks.

"However, only from about the age of seven 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."

One out of every 100 people in the UK has ASD, which is diagnosed on the basis of a set of core impairments in social engagement, communication and behavioural flexibility. Children with autism often miss out on the early communicative exchanges when they are young which may explain their tendency not to use inner speech when they are older. This relative lack of inner speech use might contribute to some of the repetitive behaviours which are common in people with autism.

In the study, those individuals with more profound communication impairments also struggled most with the use of inner speech for complex tasks. People with ASD did, however, use inner speech to recall things from their short-term memory.

Professor Dermot Bowler, from the Department of Psychology at City University London also worked on the research. He said: "This research highlights the importance of understanding how people on the autism spectrum often achieve high levels of task performance by deploying underlying cognitive strategies that are different from those utilised by the typical population. The participants in this study had very good levels of performance on the planning task, yet did not appear to be relying on language to carry it out.

"As well as alerting us to the possibility of enhancing their performance further by means of teaching them how to use inner speech, these findings also prompt us to find ways of presenting tasks that capitalise on processes they are already very good at."

Caroline Hattersley, Head of Information, Advice and Advocacy at the National Autistic Society, said: "This study presents some interesting results and could further our understanding of autism. If the findings are replicated on a wider scale they could have a significant impact on how we develop strategies to support children with the disability."

The research was funded by a City University London Research Fellowship to the lead researcher.