Autistic Communication Differences

Even verbally fluent individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) have unique methods of communication.  We discuss some of the most common autism communication differences along with strategies that can help ease frustration.  We tend to think of communication as a language-based tool, however, a large portion of communication is non-linguistic.  We rely on body-language, gestures, and tone of voice.  Individuals with ASD may have trouble with communication and social interaction.  There are differences in severity and symptoms.  Let’s take a look at these communication methods and some strategies that help individuals on the spectrum.

Common Autism Communication Strategies

Non-Verbal Communication

Many people affected by ASD develop little in the way of language skills. They rely instead on non-verbal communication techniques. These include a wide range of behaviors, such as using:

  • Gestures
  • Pictures or drawings
  • Crying and other emotive sounds
  • Physically directing someone’s hand to an object they want

While this can cause communication difficulties, parents and caregivers often become quite adept at reading these non-linguistic communications through context clues and repetition. For more information on non-verbal communication, the U.K.-based National Autistic Society has a wealth of information.

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Verbal Communication

Some individuals with autism have challenges using verbal language to communicate.  They might have communication disorders like echolalia or aphasia.  Sometimes they might confuse pronouns like ‘you’ and ‘me’.

Echolalia refers to the repetition of phrases that people have heard, perhaps in a favorite movie or television program. These phrases may or may not “fit” the context in which they are spoken, however, they typically do point to something concrete. Parents of autistic children are encouraged to watch the programs in which these phrases are spoken to attempt to figure out what their child might be trying to communicate when they use particular phrases.

Use of Behavior to Communicate

Behavior is a form of communication, whether or not we are aware of it.  Some individuals with autism communicate most effectively through their behaviors.  A child without the ability to verbally express their thoughts and opinions may need to resort to using their behavior to communicate.  A child may express displeasure with a situation by throwing items or engaging in tantrum behavior.  It’s important to teach children appropriate behaviors to use to indicate their feelings or needs.

ASD Communication Challenges

What skills can be taught with SST?

Focusing on the Literal Meanings of Words

Individuals with some form of ASD typically have trouble understanding idiomatic language and metaphors. Another implication of this trait is a difficulty understanding jokes and humor.  Jokes and humor often rely on a sarcastic tone to convey the speaker’s true meaning. A hallmark of the ways individuals with autism communicate is focusing on the “key words” of a sentence. One of the best ways to accommodate this communication style is to speak in simple, plain sentences.  You should avoid the use of idioms or figures of speech that hide the “true message” you’re trying to convey.

Moving from Topic to Topic

One difficulty individuals with autism find with communication is the ability to “stay on topic.” An autistic individual’s mind moves very quickly and processes many stimuli.  Their thoughts may seem disorganized or unfocused. However, this usually isn’t the case.  Unless an ASD individual has expressed the desire to stop talking about a given topic (in which case, you should definitely move on), they’re usually open to revisiting previous conversation topics.

Speaking with Limited Eye Contact

One of the most noticeable autistic communication challenges is the avoidance of eye contact when communicating. People affected by this condition are highly attuned to sensory details and looking into someone’s eyes can cause an overload of information. Individuals with autism may have a hard time understanding all the intricacies of communication including facial expressions and other nonverbal cues.  Some may prefer to speak with their eyes shut entirely, so as to focus only on the stimuli provided by the conversation. Understanding and accommodating this variety of communication is key to building better communication with ASD individuals.

Autism Communication Strategies That Work

There are several strategies that can help individuals with autism communicate their wants and needs more effectively.  These strategies can also improve social communication. We discuss some of the most widely used.

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Visual Supports

Visual supports are autism communication tools that can help build language skills.  Individuals can use symbols, words, or even photos to communicate.  One of the most widely used visuals is the Picture Exchange Communication System.  This system involves the use of images to help an individual convey what they want to communicate.  Over time, a child may learn to build sentences or answer questions using these images.

Augmentative Communication Devices

Augmentative communication devices are high or low tech devices that can replace or help develop speech.  High tech devices include smart phones or tablets that can generate speech using images or pre-recorded words and phrases.  A child who wants to eat lunch could press a button that says ‘lunch’ and the device would relay the message that says, “I would like to eat lunch now please.”

Sign Language

When verbal language isn’t possible, autism communication strategies like sign language can be useful.  While sign language is used most often with deaf or hard-of-hearing individuals, there are lots of other people who benefit from using sign.  Sign language allows for more natural and spontaneous communication.  There is some research that indicates that using sign language along with speech therapy can help facilitate language development in children with autism spectrum disorders.

There is evidence that autism communication skills can improve using sign language.  These benefits may include:

  • Improved social skills. Children may pay attention to the social cues of others, resulting in more natural, reciprocal relationships.
  • More appropriate behaviors. When children feel understood and heard, they show less aggression and have fewer tantrums.
  • Less dependence on auditory processing. Many individuals on the spectrum have sensory issues with sound.  Using sign language allows children to rely less on what they hear and focus more on what they see.

Related Resource: Top 20 Best Applied Behavior Analysis Programs

We’ve aimed to highlight some of the most common communication traits of individuals with autism. For a more extensive list and other information about autism spectrum disorder, the Indiana Resource Center for Autism’s website is a fantastic resource.  We hope our list of the ways individuals with autism communicate has expanded your understanding of these unique communication methods.