Communication with others

Communication or problems with communication are a key aspect of autism. Many autistic people have difficulties with some form of communication and/or social interaction which can limit many of their activities.

This is often the case for parents of children who are on the autistic spectrum who are unsure about how they can communicate with them. This often leads to frustration and stress on the part of the parents who may project these feelings albeit unknowingly onto their children.

What do we mean by communication?

Communication is the name given to the act of imparting information to another person or persons. This is done verbally or non-verbally. It can also be a combination of the two using speech, gesture and body language.

Communication is often a two way process in which two people exchange conversation between each other – known as an interaction.

Problems with communication

This may appear an easy thing to do but it can be anything but easy for someone with an autistic spectrum disorder. They find it difficult to communicate and even more so to interact with others as they do not always understand the unwritten rules of the game.

By this we mean initiating a conversation, asking others about their thoughts and feelings, taking turns and being aware of what is suitable (and not suitable) during a particular conversation. This also includes changing the tone of their voice during a conversation to maintain interest and peppering their speech with sarcastic asides, humour or ironic statements.

Again, this is something that autistic people find difficult.

For a child, the ability to form a friendship with another child or become part of a group is based upon being able to generate a conversation or to show an interest in another child. An autistic child may be able to approach another child and start talking to them but what often happens is that they monopolise the conversation or their delivery is rigidly formal.

Sadly, this means that the child is either excluded from future conversations or finds the experience too overwhelming and so becomes isolated as a result.

So, the answer is to teach the autistic child the means to engage in conversation with other children and adults.

There are children with a spectrum disorder who have poor speech facilities and are unable or unwilling to talk to others. This means encouraging them to use other forms of communication, for example, gesture.

How an autistic child communicates

An autistic child will use a variety of ways to communicate with its parents.

If you are a parent then you may notice that your child repeats certain words even though he/she does not understand what they mean or cries. Plus your child may not appear to hear what you say or fails to respond to any type of communication –verbal and non-verbal.

So, you may have to resort to other means such as body language and gesture. For example, point at objects such as a toy to attract your child’s attention or use a set of pictures. Speak a word to your child and encourage him/her to repeat this word.

Two forms of communication

Your child will use either or both of the following forms of communication:

  • Pre-intentional communication
  • Intentional communication

Pre-intentional communication refers to the child talking or doing something irrespective of other people around him/her. They do this without meaning to affect anyone else which can also be used as a way of calming themselves in a stressful situation.

Intentional communication is where the child speaks or performs an action with the intention of attracting your attention or as a message for someone else. This is more difficult for an autistic child to learn than pre-intentional communication.

(Source: The National Autistic Society/Communicating and Interacting)

Stages of communication

There are 4 stages of communication which an autistic child can reach which depend upon their ability to know how and why they do this; their ability to interact with others and their understanding of the entire process.

These stages start with pre-intentional communication in which the child is focused on their needs only and is oblivious to others around him/her. This applies to most autistic children.

The second stage is where the child develops an awareness of their actions and how they might affect others. This triggers a desire to communicate their needs to others.

These actions are further developed in the third stage. The child will interact with an adult and will indicate –by pointing –what they want or need. They will start to maintain eye contact with an adult.

And finally, in the fourth stage the child has developed the ability to communicate via means of a basic conversation and can interact more effectively. However, they will often find this easier in the safe surroundings of their home.

Problems can arise in an unfamiliar environment such as a new school where the child may flounder in a conversation and fall back on pre-stored words and expressions.

Helping an autistic child to communicate

There are a variety of methods available to teach your child how to communicate. These include giving your child enough time to communicate (not rushing them); allowing them to do things for themselves and giving them feedback.

By feedback we mean praise and reward when the child tries to communicate with you and others.

Do not rush your child when they try to complete a task such as tying their shoelace however tempting this may be. Let them do this for themselves.

Encourage your child to play with other children. This can be a tricky area as your child may prefer to be left alone or play by themselves. This is something you can initiate by playing with your child and persevering even if they become angry or unwilling. Do not cause them any unnecessary distress but persist as any reaction is better than none.

Hopefully they will learn that playing with another person is enjoyable and fun to do.

Encourage your child to communicate and interact whenever possible. Try to get him/her to work with you rather than you taking charge and to try new things. Take a step back and allow your child the space to develop new skills rather than jumping in to help them with something.

Let your child decide when he/she has had enough.

Speak clearly and if necessary, slowly to your child and use gestures as well. Use picture cards or other visual means of enabling your child to understand what you are saying and what it means.

If your child’s speech is limited then consider using sign language or cards with words written onto them.

It will be frustrating for both you and your child but persevere and the rewards will be worth it.

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