WEDNESDAY, Jan. 25 (HealthDay News) -- Learning to "talk things through in their head" could help people with autism make plans and complete complex daily tasks, researchers say.

These skills might increase the likelihood that people with autism can live independent, flexible lives, according to the study led by a team at Durham University in England.

The researchers compared how 15 high-functioning adults with autism spectrum disorder and 16 adults without the disorder completed a test that measures planning ability as well as a short-term memory task.

Autism is characterized by repetitive behaviors and difficulty with communication and social interactions. The researchers said that the use or non-use of thinking in words is strongly associated with the degree of communication problems that are rooted in early childhood.

The researchers said that children with autism have the mechanism for using "inner speech" but they don't always use it in the same way as typically developing children.

Teaching children with autism how to encourage inner speech, such as encouraging them to describe their actions out loud, may make a difference, the researchers said. This type of approach has previously been shown to increase mental flexibility among typically developing children.

The study authors also suggested that children with autism could benefit from verbal learning of their daily school schedules, rather than using written or other visual timetables.

The study appeared online Jan. 25 in the journal Development and Psychopathology.

"Most people will 'think in words' when trying to solve problems, which helps with planning or particularly complicated tasks," study author David Williams, a lecturer in the department of psychology at Durham University, said in a university news release. "Young, typically developing children tend to talk out loud to guide themselves when they face challenging tasks."

However, it is only from about age 7 that "they talk to themselves in their head and, thus, think in words for problem-solving," he added. "How good people are at this skill is in part determined by their communication experiences as a young child."

More information

The U.S. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke has more about autism.