Teaching kids with autism to talk things through in their heads could dramatically improve their ability to deal with everyday problems and increase their odds of living independently as adults, new research indicates.

Most children learn to problem solve by talking out loud, but as they age, kids shift to talking in their heads to tackle potential hurdles.

While individuals with autism have the ability to do this, they often don’t, researchers said this week in the journal Development and Psychopathology. And teaching children with autism to use so-called “inner speech” could make a big difference long-term, they said.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

For the study, a group of British psychologists looked at 15 adults with high functioning autism and 16 typically developing individuals while they completed a task designed to measure planning ability.

In some cases, participants were asked to repeat the words “Tuesday” or “Thursday” out loud while doing the task, something that would distract a person using inner speech to strategize.

The added challenge made no difference to most of the study participants with autism, but led 90 percent of those without the disorder to fare significantly worse on the task. The results suggest that those with autism do not typically talk things through in their heads, the researchers said.

What’s more, the study found that the more difficulty individuals had with communication, the less likely they were to employ inner speech.

However, the researchers said that teaching children with autism to talk through issues mentally at a young age could make a difference. Specifically they said that there’s evidence to suggest that kids could benefit from describing their actions out loud or learning to master their daily schedule verbally rather than visually.

“These results show that inner speech has its roots in interpersonal communication with others early in life, and it demonstrates that people who are poor at communicating with others will generally be poor at communicating with themselves,” said David Williams of Durham University who led the study.

“It also shows that there is a critical distinction between being able to express yourself verbally and actually using silent language for problem-solving. For example, the participants with ASD in our study were verbally able, yet did not use inner speech to support their planning,” Williams said.