As I know all too well from personal experience, getting a non-verbal child with autism to talk can be a real challenge. Sometimes traditional approaches such as speech therapy and ABA work and other times they don't. There doesn't seem to be any rhyme or reason as to why a child with autism can't or won't talk or why these traditional approaches work or not.
So some of the time you have to try something strange or different in order to help a child learn to talk. That is definitely the case in a recently published paper were researchers tested a method called "Auditory-Motor Mapping Training" and found that it did help non-verbal children with autism learn to talk.
If you look at what this group is doing, which is basically singing words and playing the drums, it sounds a bit outlandish. But you can't argue with success. And, if you take the time to think really think about it, it does make a certain type of sense.
As we have been teaching the twins to talk, first with sign language, then with PECs, and now with an AAC device, one thing that we have noticed is that they seem to need some extra stimulus in order to learn a word. It is as if they need a physical gesture (sign, AAC) or some visual sign (PECs, AAC) in order for them internalize a word. We have also seen them use hand gestures (i.e. signs) or pictures in order to help their recall of a word.
So I am not surprised at all that pairing words with some extra stimulus would be effective. Maybe part of the problem in autism is that the typical auditory/speech pathways in the brain aren't functioning and you have to take the back door approach to get the words into the brain.
The abstract of the paper is below and the full text of the paper is freely available here.
Auditory-motor mapping training as an intervention to facilitate speech output in non-verbal children
Although up to 25% of children with autism are non-verbal, there are very few interventions that can reliably produce significant improvements in speech output. Recently, a novel intervention called Auditory-Motor Mapping Training (AMMT) has been developed, which aims to promote speech production directly by training the association between sounds and articulatory actions using intonation and bimanual motor activities. AMMT capitalizes on the inherent musical strengths of children with autism, and offers activities that they intrinsically enjoy. It also engages and potentially stimulates a network of brain regions that may be dysfunctional in autism. Here, we report an initial efficacy study to provide 'proof of concept' for AMMT. Six non-verbal children with autism participated. Prior to treatment, the children had no intelligible words. They each received 40 individual sessions of AMMT 5 times per week, over an 8-week period. Probe assessments were conducted periodically during baseline, therapy, and follow-up sessions. After therapy, all children showed significant improvements in their ability to articulate words and phrases, with generalization to items that were not practiced during therapy sessions. Because these children had no or minimal vocal output prior to treatment, the acquisition of speech sounds and word approximations through AMMT represents a critical step in expressive language development in children with autism.
Wan CY, Bazen L, Baars R, Libenson A, Zipse L, Zuk J, Norton A, Schlaug G. Auditory-motor mapping training as an intervention to facilitate speech output in non-verbal children with autism: a proof of concept study. PLoS One. 2011;6(9):e25505. Epub 2011 Sep 29. PubMed PMID: 21980480.