Communicating On The Autism Spectrum
Communication is another important topic for discussion as this is how we voice our thoughts, needs, wants and so on. This is how we engage with the world around us. Imagine existing in a world where others do not understand what you are trying to communicate. There are different types of communication and not all of them of verbal. Individuals on the autism spectrum have unique ways of processing information and due to this some may communicate in a way that is perceived as different to the "societal norm".
What is very important to mention here is that if you come across a non-verbal autistic child or adult do not assume they can not understand you. ALWAYS assume competence! The difference is they may not be able to respond in the way you expect, so once again exercising understanding and patience is key to engaging with someone on the spectrum. If you read last month's article on sensory processing, it may also help in understanding why individuals on the spectrum may communicate differently.
Why is communication perceived as different?
As discussed last month, research has shown that neuro-divergant brains are wired differently due to their neurological developmental pathway. This different operating system helps us understand why they may not have the exact same way of communicating as neuro-typicals do. This may be perceived as strange but its not, its just different. All individuals on the spectrum have a voice, they just need to find the best way for them to communicate it. Some may start talking later than others and some may remain nonverbal for their whole lives but that does not mean they do not have that inner voice or understand what is going on around them.
They most definitely do and some non-verbal individuals find their own ways of verbalizing their thoughts such as augmentative and alternative communication. There are also other forms of non-verbal communication such as: gesturing, signing, visual aid systems (such as PECS) and so on. These methods all help autistic children and adults communicate, they sometimes help them develop their own communication technique or help with the development of speech.
What ever preferred method (or one that works) is used, there is nothing wrong with it. If we were to say there was it would be same as saying that English or French is wrong. Try to listen to what they communicating even if it is not verbal.
Common questions regarding communication
Current and ongoing research has illustrated why individuals on the spectrum communicate differently. This helps us to gain a better understanding of why some people do not speak in the same way that neuro-typicals do. However it is important -as mentioned above- to always try to listen to what they are saying. In some cases neuro-divergent children are communicating with their behavior and it is perceived as "challenging" or " dis-obedient" when in actual fact the child (or adult) is trying to tell you something.
Parents often worry if their child is non-verbal: "will he/she ever talk?", "is it my fault he/she does not talk?", "does he/she understand me?". These are normal concerns and things are not always black and white as humans are very complex. At times health professionals may tell a parent their child will never speak. That is unknown, no one can make that call, no one can decide that or tell a parent that their child will never speak.
I have come across these types of examples in the past where parents are told this and then their child starts speaking. It is not fair when medical professionals do that. It is possible that a non-verbal child will start speaking but it is not always guaranteed and neither is the time frame of when they will start speaking. It is no-one's fault and yes more often than not they do understand what is going on around them.
Parents often worry if it is their fault and (I often bring this up) I think it is important for parents to know that its not. As an ASD parent they have enough on their plate and the last thing they need to worry about is feeling guilty. Another common question is "what do I do when I meet an autistic child or adult and they do not speak?". Well the best way to engage is how you normally do, do not try and change your interaction style or adjust your speaking(by speaking slowly or more exaggerated).
This could become quite offensive and may feel patronizing or belittling to the individual on the receiving end. Speak to an autistic adult or child as you would any other person. If they do not respond in the way you expect just continue being yourself and try to engage. If the child or adult does not give you a response, that is OK, and it is for more appreciated (you making an effort to engage) than treating them in the former mentioned manner.
What is scripting?
Scripting is a great example of a unique way some children or adults try to communicate with the world around them. It is another sphere of autism that others should know about as it is not fair to judge or give strange looks to children or adults we come across who are scripting. Their brains process information differently and thus the way the information is communicated may be different as well.
Lets work together to try understand what others are going through rather than judge or look at them as if they are strange. Scripting is the repetition of something heard or seen before. It is often a movie, advert or song. Especially if it is something that the child or adult is interested in. Some may enjoy scripting and can recall the entire script of a movie.
What is Echolalia?
This is another unique communication trait. Some children or adults may repeat sounds, words or phrases they have heard in their environment at the time (echolalia) or from the past (delayed echolalia).They may also repeat what they have heard others say. For example a child may respond to you with something that you have just said: "I want milk", the child may also say "I want milk" even if they do not want it.
They may repeat something they came across on television or heard from a song. This is again them processing and communicating their thoughts. Sometimes it is applicable to their current context and sometimes not. Children may also speak in a different or high pitched tone, a different accent or voice. This relates to the next question below.
What is prosody?
It is the way we use appropriate timing of verbal and non-verbal communication. It relays pragmatic information (which is the appropriate utilization of speech or language in a given social situation) as well as emotions. For example knowing when to pause in a sentence or add emphasis is using prosody. So the above mentioned 'speaking in a high pitched tone out of context' would be seen as a problem relating to prosody.
Speech therapists try to work on the correct use of pragmatics and prosody. Research is also growing in these areas to come up with new ways to help in this sphere of communication.
It takes two tango and the same applies for communication. This is not an autistic problem this is a societal problem. We need to work together to try make concessions or accommodations that help neuro-divergant individuals communicate in their unique way whilst showing them understanding and acceptance in order for them to feel more comfortable while doing so.