How To Improve Communication With Autistic People
We discussed what autism is in a previous news piece: Understanding Autism.
This is a follow-up guide on how to improve communication with autistic people.
Everyone is different, and we all talk and behave in unique ways. It’s what makes us, us! Which is a wonderful thing, but it can also make communication confusing, especially for autistic people.
Understanding how autistic people typically communicate is one of the most helpful ways to reduce confusion for everyone.
By having a general knowledge of autism and communication, it’s a lot easier to discover the joy of good conversation with someone who’s simply talking in a ‘different’ way – whether they’re a family member, friend, work colleague or somebody else.
Understanding autism and communication
It is widely perceived that people with autism struggle with social skills, that they are shy or unfriendly, or that they cannot feel or express emotions.
These are unfair and untrue myths.
Instead, an autistic person 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.
Autistic people cannot quickly adapt to conversations or respond to words in the same way neurotypical people do. Instead, they are simply communicating in their own way.
Because autism is a spectrum, there is always variety in the way autistic individuals will behave. Autistic people are not deliberately being strange or unsociable, but they are constantly finding the best ways to express themselves.
How autistic people may communicate
People with Autism Spectrum Disorder can use several different techniques to communicate and learn how to converse…
- 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 phases ‘fit’ the current situation
- Picking out keywords or phrases – then focusing on the literal meanings and responding accordingly to those words only
For an autistic person, 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. The analysing of words and not tones is why people with autism can have trouble understanding sarcastic language, metaphors, and humour.
They may also…
- Change topics quickly – it can be difficult for individuals 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 round, as the mind moves quickly to deal with each input as they come in.
- Make no eye contact – autistic people can talk with you but may struggle to talk to you, often not making eye contact. Again this is not an unfriendly action.
Avoiding eye contact may help an autistic person talk clearly as it takes away all the stimuli that come with looking into the eyes which can cause an overload of information. Some people with Autism Spectrum Disorder may prefer to speak with their eyes shut, to focus purely on the words of the conversation.
Children with ASD may have their unique mannerisms such as…
- Using made-up words, which are called neologisms, instead of words they don’t know or when they are unsure how to express themselves.
- Using the same words over and over.
- Muddling up words and pronouns, for example referring to themselves as ‘you’ and other people as ‘I’.
These are often a child’s attempt to make some communication happen, but an adult may not understand. This may lead to tantrums, aggression or self-harming behaviour because they are misunderstood, confused or frightened.
How to talk to an autistic person
By looking at how people with autism may communicate, we know that their understanding of conversations relies heavily on language and words (or lack of words) and not the use of others facial expressions, body language or subtle tones.
One of the best ways to accommodate this is to speak with clear and concise words, saying simple and plain sentences that cannot have more than one meaning.
For autistic children
This is especially true for children, who have not yet learnt about metaphors, double meanings and sarcasm.
Language is often simplified for all children, but it is perhaps more important that autistic children are spoken to…
- Using short sentences and blunt instructions
- With less mature language, using sounds like ‘yuck’ and physical actions
- Alongside visual cards or tablets with pictures
- With an exaggerated tone of voice to make a point and highlight important words
- With gaps in sentences for them to fill in and finish
- Using prompts and questions to encourage responses
- With patience and time to respond
- At the right moments when they are not engaged with something else and are calm
For autistic people of all ages
Several things can be done whilst talking…
- Say their name at the beginning of a conversation, question or important statement
This makes sure they are paying attention instead of blocking out background noise. If you don’t know their name, take a moment to find out (which is also polite and makes a connection). The signs that someone is paying attention will be different for different people.
- Make gentle eye contact if they will allow it
This encourages nonverbal communication and helps autistic people develop their skills in understanding facial expressions and emotion.
- Say what you mean and be direct
As previously mentioned, autistic people can be literal when it comes to wording, so using figures of speech can be confusing.
Instead, speak plainly with no unnecessary details. Be clear and concise with no slang, nuance or sarcasm. Don’t dumb down the language for adults but keep in mind they may analyse every word and work out the best response.
- Don’t use open-ended questions
“Did you have a good day?” is an open-ended question we all hear and ask regularly. But it can be difficult or impossible for someone with autism to answer open-ended questions like this and they should be avoided.
Questions which are necessary and require a specific answer are much better. It is also good to include options or choices to allow them to come to a sensible answer.
- Avoid ‘information overload’
An autistic person can struggle to filter out less important information which can lead to them being overloaded and nothing is processed.
If it seems like this is happening, or the person is anxious, say very little. If something must be said, use minimal words very slowly with pauses and no questions. This allows them 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 they need more time to absorb and process the information.
- Accept the unexpected
We know that autistic people may use gestures, sounds, echolalia or that they may process and respond to specific words. They may communicate with some or all of these.
So if an individual 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 may mean. Keep being patient, go with the flow of the conversation and allow the individual to communicate in their way.
- If speaking doesn’t work, try writing or getting visual
People with autism are often happy to restart the conversation again on paper, using written words or perhaps drawing fun pictures to keep the situation light-hearted. Big movements can also help.
Provide support and help with communication
It’s always good to provide meaningful feedback, at the right time in the right way. Such as when teaching children how to communicate or helping an adult after they unknowingly communicate inappropriately.
Autistic people, generally, welcome feedback and would rather receive direct, honest help instead of working out what negative facial expressions or body language mean.
Providing support that is non-judgmental and clear can help someone with ASD learn to safely navigate social interactions and develop their communication skills.
More tips for communicating with autistic people
- Avoid using terms of endearment
For example, “honey” or “love” or “mate” as they can be confusing like sarcasm and slang. Although the speaker may mean nothing by these terms, an autistic person may be uncomfortable or may take them literally.
- Talk about what they want to talk about
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 is obsession, which means talking a lot about one particular thing. Sticking to the topic they want to discuss keeps the conversation going and helps them develop.
- Keep ‘information overload’ in mind
As we have already mentioned, an autistic person deals with stimuli as it arrives and can find it difficult to filter out the less important information, causing overload which may result in any number of outcomes.
We discussed speaking slowly with pauses if needed, but if it seems like a conversation is becoming distressful it can also be helpful to remove visual communications. Whilst eye contact and movements are usually a good thing, during an overload they become an unwanted stimulus.
It is also good to be wary of the surrounding environment. Could background noise be causing overload? Are too many people talking at once? Finding a quiet place reduces sensory input and will help avoid overload.
- Address him or her as you would any other adult
An autistic person may understand every word said but then may have difficulty responding verbally. It is therefore important not to assume the person has limited skills or abilities – they should be treated the same way a neurotypical person would be. It’s also important to remember not to speak as if the person is not in the room when in a group setting.
As everyone is different, we can use these points only as a guide and should get to know a person to fully understand how to communicate with them.
This is something we keep in mind at Calvert Trust Exmoor during our accessible breaks. Guests have the same instructor throughout their stay which allows a bond to build, which helps autistic people enjoy the activities.
We have many examples of people with autism enjoying a break with us over on our Guest Stories page.
If you’d like more information about how we are autism-friendly, please call 01598 763221.