Understanding Autism and Communication

Communication is an integral part of how we understand and relate to one another. Everyone talks and behaves in unique ways, with many of us having personal verbal or body language quirks that are part of what make us, us!

The subtleties of these different methods of communicating can make understanding others confusing, especially for people autism.

Educating yourself on how a person under the Spectrum might communicate is one of the most helpful ways to reduce confusion for everyone. It’s important to note that no two people with autism will communicate in the same way; there are, however, some general things to consider.

Historically, wider society has perpetuated assumptions that people under the spectrum struggle with social skills, are shy or unfriendly, or cannot feel or express emotions.

These assumed traits are unfair, untrue and should be dismissed as ignorance.

Instead, someone with autism may be unable to find the right words to start a conversation, they may not understand body language and social cues, and they may deal with emotion internally rather than expressing it outwards.

Some people with autism cannot quickly adapt to conversations or respond to words in the same way neurotypical people might. This is not because they cannot communicate ‘correctly’; they may simply communicate in their own way.

Because the autism spectrum is vastly different for each person, there is always variety in the way people will behave and talk. People with autism are not deliberately being strange or unsociable but are seeking the best ways to express themselves.

How Do People With Autism Communicate?

As mentioned, there is no one size fits all – people with autism are not a homogeneous group. That being said, many individuals might use some of the following communication techniques.

  • Non-verbal communication: pointing, gesturing, physically moving someone to the thing they need, writing words.
  • Sounds and crying: due to not understanding, feeling frustrated or being unable to use the right words.
  • Echolalia: the term given to repeating phrases and words they have heard in the past, hoping these phrases ‘fit’ the current situation.
  • Picking out keywords or phrases: then focusing on the literal meanings and responding accordingly to those words only.

For a person with autism, focusing on the literal meaning of specific words creates a reply that makes sense to them, but it may seem out of place in the conversation to a neurotypical person.

Analyzing words and not tones is why a person under the spectrum might have trouble understanding sarcasm, metaphors, and humorous language.

Communication Behavior

While talking to someone, an individual with autism might also:

  • Change topics quickly:  it can be difficult for some people to stay on topic as they deal with incoming stimuli. It may seem like they are avoiding something or are unfocused, yet it is usually the other way around, as the mind moves quickly to deal with each input.
  • Make no eye contact:  people with autism can talk with you but may struggle to talk to you, often not making eye contact. Again, this is not an unfriendly action.

How to Talk to a Person With Autism

  • Speak With Clarity: One of the best things you can do is speak with clear and concise words, saying simple and plain sentences that cannot have more than one meaning.
  • Avoid Terms of Endearment: Like sarcasm or slang, terms of endearment, including things like ‘honey’, ‘love’ or ‘mate’, can cause confusion and should be avoided.

  • Address the Individual By Name: Say the person’s name at the beginning of a conversation, question or important statement. This ensures they are paying attention instead of blocking out background noise

  • Make Gentle Eye Contact If Possible: This encourages non-verbal communication and helps people with autism develop their skills in understanding facial expressions and emotion.

  • Avoid Open-Ended Questions: Something like ‘did you have a good day?’ is an open-ended question that many neurotypical people will answer without hesitation. However, questions with so many possible answers and interpretations can be challenging for people under the spectrum to answer.

  • Talk About What They Want to Discuss: This is especially true for children. Trying to force the conversation in a certain direction is not a successful approach. Instead, talk about what they are doing and let them lead the subject. Another trait of autism includes obsessive tendencies, which might lead to them talking a lot about one particular thing. Sticking to the topic they want to discuss keeps the conversation going and helps them develop their communication skills.

  • Avoid Overloading Information: People with autism can struggle to filter out less important information, which can lead to them being overloaded, meaning they struggle to process new information. If it seems like they’re being overloaded, or are anxious, begin to slow your pace or halt the conversation. If something must be said, use minimal words and avoid questions. This break allows the individual to catch up and deal with stimuli.

  • Be Patient: If it’s necessary to wait for a response to a question, then give them time. If someone does not respond straight away, it could be that they need more time to absorb and process the information.

  • Expect the Unexpected: We know that people with autism may use gestures, sounds and echolalia to process and respond to specific words. Someone may use all or a few of these communication methods. If your kid does or says something unexpected or changes the subject, do not be alarmed or try to fight it. It’s important to listen and work out what they’re trying to say.

  • Try Written or Visual Communication: If verbal communication is less effective, try writing or getting visual. Someone who struggles to talk may be happy to restart the conversation on paper, using written words or pictures.

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2 comments

  • This is awesome to read. I have a 5 yr old on the spectrum. All advice is good advice to me.

    Jennifer Austin-Wilson
  • Thank you for all your outlines and explanations, it has helped me so much in getting closer to my incredible grandson!

    Denise Kohler

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