How Does Autism Affect Communication?

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Many people on the autistic spectrum experience challenges in communicating with others –neurotypical or neurodivergent.

These difficulties can take many forms and can potentially result in misunderstandings and difficulties working with others, as well as challenges in integration into groups and wider society.

Learning more about how autism affects communication can be helpful to anyone who has an autism diagnosis or spends time with autistic people in any setting. Let’s take a closer look.

Autism affects communication in manifold ways – including rigid language, difficulty in nonverbal communication and uneven language development.

Repetitive or Rigid Language

A characteristic often associated with the presence of an autism condition is repetitive or rigid language, sometimes described as ‘abnormal speech patterns’. In fact, these two are a mainstay in guides on how to tell if your child has autism, and are taken into account by assessors.

One example of repetition, though not the only way it manifests, is known as echolalia – a term used when someone repeats words or phrases they have heard. This repetition can be immediate or come at a later time. Patterns of repetitive behaviour, movements or activities have also been noted, and these too can hinder communication in autistic people.

As for ‘rigid language’, consider the commonly mentioned ‘monotone’ of some autistic persons’ style of speech, which may even be described as ‘robotic’. Because such discourse often strays from neurotypical society’s expectations, this can put those on the autism spectrum at a disadvantage when it comes to convincing others or simply being heard.

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Uneven Language Development

Language skills in autistic children are developed at an uneven pace and often to varying degrees. Compared to neurotypical children, autistic children may present some difficulties.

Some autistic children will not develop language skills at all; others will eventually possess a rich vocabulary in certain topics but noticeably lack in most others. It’s also been noted that though autistic children learn how to read at an average age or early on, they do not necessarily understand the information.

Granted, different individuals manifest uneven language development in different ways, and some not at all. What helps is to remember that a person with autism may demonstrate this, especially as a child.

Do not make assumptions about an autistic individual’s language development; instead, try one of the strategies and techniques we’re presenting below to increase the effectiveness of your communication.

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Poor Nonverbal Communication Skills

According to sources such as the New York Times, 93% of communication is nonverbal. Though the accuracy of this figure has been questioned, almost every specialist agrees that a significant portion of communication is unspoken.

Autistic people – and particularly so children – often experience difficulties understanding nonverbal cues in conversation. This can take on the form, for example, of not realising that someone who keeps looking at their watch may be needing to end the conversation, because they are in a rush.

Beyond this, the autistic person themselves may not be as familiar with conveying meaning to others via nonverbal means. For example, people on the autistic spectrum can find it daunting to maintain eye contact – and, as a result, whoever is conversing with them may mistakenly think they are bored or disinterested in the topic of conversation, while in fact they are not.

Narrow Interests and Exceptional Abilities

Moving beyond strictly verbal capacity, autism can also affect communication because people with this condition tend to have specific, uncommon interests. They also tend to find ‘small talk’ and some social conventions trite or nonsensical, and might not want to participate.

The results of this are two-fold: on the one hand, the autistic person will invest time and energy exploring their narrow interests, thus more easily bonding with those who do the same. However, on the other hand, the autistic child or adult may seem ‘eccentric’ or eager to discuss topics the majority of neurotypical persons are not interested in.

As is evident, there are many contexts in which this behaviour can put a person with neurodiversity at a disadvantage, communication-wise.

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How Can You Support Communication Development in Autistic Persons?

Are you looking to support an adult or child with ASD? Your interest and awareness already go a long way but, for practical steps, you’ll want to consider the below.

Follow Their Lead

Though well-meaning, parents of autistic children may make the mistake of trying to direct the child, and experience feelings of frustration if the child does not respond.

Instead, both in children and adults, it is recommended that you follow the autistic individual’s lead when engaging with them.

This would mean things like:

  • Let them express themselves at their own pace.
  • Consider discussing topics they are interested in.
  • Explore and enjoy activities they are eager to do.
  • Notice and observe what they seem more excited about, and focus on that.

Find Time to Practise Communication

As with any skill, communication can be improved upon. This is true both for the neurotypical and for the neurodivergent, no matter the particulars.

So, if communication is not on the level where you would like it to be, allocate some time to work on it with the autistic person. This exercise goes both ways – see it as a method to build upon and strengthen the communication between you. It is not just the autistic person who will be ‘learning’, but both parties. You, too, will be discovering new techniques and strategies, no matter if you are neurotypical or not.

Regular practice will improve communication between the two of you, and likely boost the communication skills of the autistic person themselves.

Be Face to Face

Sitting face-to-face with the autistic person helps both parties. Firstly, they are more likely to observe your facial expressions and verbal signals, as well as find it easier to focus on you.

In children in particular, this also encourages bonding and allows them to anticipate your presence.

For a neurotypical person conversing with an autistic child or adult, being face to face while conversing is also beneficial because it allows you to observe their expressions and movements.

In fact, being face to face is also very useful when assessing whether someone may be autistic, in addition to an autism test, exercises and discussions with their parents or guardians.

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Use Gestures and Visual Supports

Neurotypical individuals are often used to communication being something very specific: words spoken in varying degrees of intonation, sometimes accompanied by gestures.

Indeed, sometimes we tend to forget that it does not have to take a specific form, as long as it is effective. A grunt, a smile, the act of pointing – for instance – are all part of communication, even when not accompanied by words.

The fourth strategy on our list asks you to be creative and expressive in the way you approach communication with someone who has an autism diagnosis.

  • Visual supports: photographs, symbols, flashcards, small objects and such can help immensely. Consider using them in isolation or combination, to illustrate your point. Or ask the child or adult to make a choice by pointing to one of them.
  • Gestures: an interesting study from 2014 found that parents tend to gesture just as much as their children – neurotypical or not. Because children with ASD tend to use gestures less frequently, their parents do the same. The result? A vicious circle of fewer attempts at communication. To break it, try introducing more gestures, more consciously, whenever you spend time with the child.

Encourage Requests and Interaction

Looking to improve your communication with someone? Sometimes, it’s simply a matter of asking them more questions, so they feel valued and encouraged to state their needs and wants.

As we discussed in our article on what is autism, autistic people can be very logical thinkers. They can also miss social cues and nuance more often than other groups. This is why asking them questions outright, as well as encouraging them to make clear requests, can unlock the door to improved communication.

It is perhaps even easier to think about this in regard to autistic children. Take a child who seems to be becoming frustrated and looking for their favourite toy. Your goal should be to demonstrate that you’re there to help and can do so if they communicate their request, and show them how:

  • Learn to spot the intent.
  • Once you can tell they are looking for something, try asking them outright.
  • Consider using supports as we outlined above, and encourage them to speak their request, gesture the item, or point to a similar toy.
  • No matter whether the above has been successful, don’t forget to show them what they can do next time, once the situation has been resolved. Articulate the words that would have worked, or even the gesture.

By showing the autistic person what would work for you, you are helping develop and augment new lines of communication between the two of you, which they might also use with others.

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Summing Up: Communication in Autism

Communication can be a challenge for anyone. But for autistic individuals in particular, it is commonly even more daunting – even acting as a major obstacle to everyday social life.

By considering the particular ways autism affects communication as well as keeping in mind the techniques we’ve outlined above, you can start to build bridges, supporting the person better and providing them with more ways to make their needs, wants and thoughts heard.

Useful Links

What is low functioning vs high functioning autism?
Autism workplace needs assessments & adjustments
Types of autism

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