How To Improve Communication With Autistic People
Communication is an integral part of how we understand and relate to one another. Everyone talks and behaves in unique ways, with many of us having personal verbal or body language quirks that are part of what make us, us!
The subtleties of these different methods of communicating can make understanding others confusing, especially for autistic people.
Educating yourself on how an autistic person might communicate is one of the most helpful ways to reduce confusion for everyone. It’s important to note that no two autistic people will communicate in the same way; there are, however, some general things to consider.
By having a good general knowledge of autism and communication, you open the door to more effective communication between all, rediscovering the joy of good conversation whether it’s with a family member, friend, work colleague or stranger!
We hope this will prove a useful resource for those endeavouring to improve their understanding of autism and the role of communication.
Understanding Autism and Communication
When considering how to improve the way you communicate, it can be helpful to first appreciate how communication might be more difficult for autistic people.
Historically, wider society has perpetuated assumptions that autistic people struggle with social skills, are shy or unfriendly, or cannot feel or express emotions.
These assumed traits are unfair, untrue and should be dismissed as ignorance.
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.
Some autistic people cannot quickly adapt to conversations or respond to words in the same way neurotypical people might. This is not because they cannot communicate ‘correctly’; they may simply communicate in their own way.
Because the autism spectrum is vastly different for each person, there is always variety in the way autistic people will behave and talk. Autistic people are not deliberately being strange or unsociable but are seeking the best ways to express themselves.
The Benefits of Improving Your Communication Skills
Learning how to best converse with people who may not communicate in a way you’re familiar with can help you appreciate how people experience the world differently.
When improving your communication skills, you’ll also learn how to better express yourself and your own ideas in various ways.
You’ll also, of course, be able to connect with more people, build relationships and help cultivate a more understanding environment, making discussions an enjoyable and productive experience for everyone.
How Do Autistic People Communicate?
As mentioned, there is no one size fits all – autistic people are not a homogeneous group. That being said, many autistic people might use some of the following communication techniques.
- 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 phrases ‘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.
Analysing words and not tones is why an autistic person might have trouble understanding sarcasm, metaphors, and humorous language.
While talking to someone, an autistic person might 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 around, as the mind moves quickly to deal with each input.
- 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.
Eye Contact and Communication for Autistic People
Avoiding eye contact may help an autistic person talk clearly as it takes away all the stimuli that come with looking into someone’s eyes, which can often cause an overload of information. Some people may prefer to speak with their eyes shut, to focus purely on the words of the conversation.
You should never force an autistic person to make eye contact with you during a conversation as, for many individuals, this might cause undue stress and discomfort.
How to Talk to an Autistic Person
By looking at how autistic people may communicate, we can see that their understanding of conversations relies heavily on language and words (or lack of words) and not the use of other people’s facial expressions, body language or subtle infections.
Below, we provide some common tips to use when speaking to an autistic person who may have difficulty communicating.
Speak With Clarity
One of the best things you can do is speak with clear and concise words, saying simple and plain sentences that cannot have more than one meaning.
Be direct and avoid using figures of speech as non-literal language can be confusing. Slang, nuance, or sarcasm can cause confusion and double-meaning.
Avoid Terms of Endearment
Like sarcasm or slang, terms of endearment, including things like ‘honey’, ‘love’ or ‘mate’, can cause confusion and should be avoided.
The speaker may mean nothing by these terms or use them offhandedly, but an autistic person may take them literally or find them uncomfortable.
Address the Individual By Name
Say the person’s name at the beginning of a conversation, question or important statement.
This ensures they are paying attention instead of blocking out background noise. If you don’t know their name, take a moment to ask and find out (which is also just polite and helps make a connection).
Make Gentle Eye Contact If Possible
This encourages non-verbal communication and helps autistic people develop their skills in understanding facial expressions and emotion.
Again, don’t try to force this, as it can make talking even more difficult for some.
Avoid Open-Ended Questions
Something like ‘did you have a good day?’ is an open-ended question that many neurotypical people will answer without hesitation. However, questions with so many possible answers and interpretations can be challenging for autistic people to answer.
Questions that are necessary and require a specific answer are much better. It can also help to offer options or choices to help guide but not control the conversation.
Talk About What They Want to Discuss
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 includes obsessive tendencies, which might lead to them talking a lot about one particular thing. Sticking to the topic they want to discuss keeps the conversation going and helps them develop their communication skills.
Avoid Overloading Information
An autistic person can struggle to filter out less important information, which can lead to them being overloaded, meaning they struggle to process new information.
If it seems like they’re being overloaded, or are anxious, begin to slow your pace or halt the conversation. If something must be said, use minimal words and avoid questions. This break allows the individual to catch up and deal with stimuli.
If it seems like a conversation is becoming distressing, it can also be helpful to remove visual communications. While eye contact and movements are usually a good thing, during an overload, they can become unwanted stimulus.
You should also be aware 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.
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 that they need more time to absorb and process the information.
Expect the Unexpected
We know that autistic people may use gestures, sounds and echolalia to process and respond to specific words. Someone may use all or a few of these communication methods.
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’re trying to say. Keep being patient, go with the flow of the conversation and allow the individual to communicate in their way.
Try Written or Visual Communication
If verbal communication is less effective, try writing or getting visual. Someone who struggles to talk may be happy to restart the conversation on paper, using written words or pictures.
Sensory or receptive toys may also help some people feel more comfortable when in a situation where they have to talk or get their point across.
How to Communicate With Autistic Adults
Most of the tips above will apply to conversing with autistic people of all ages. However, one of the most important things to do when talking with an autistic adult is to address and converse with them as you would any other adult, and not as a child.
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.
You should also never speak as if the person is not in the room when in a group setting. By modelling appropriate behaviour, you also help show others in the group how they can best communicate with autistic people.
How Do Autistic Children Communicate?
Autistic children may have different mannerisms as they are still developing and learning to react to the world around them.
These may include:
- Using made-up words (known as 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 attempts 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 Communicate With Autistic Children
Language is often simplified for all children but is especially important for autistic children as they are still learning about metaphors, double meanings and sarcasm.
When speaking to autistic children, you should be very conscious of doing the following to support their communication skills.
- Using short sentences and blunt instructions.
- Using sounds like ‘yuck’ and physical actions.
- Combining verbal communication alongside visual cards or tablets with pictures.
- Speaking with an exaggerated tone of voice to make a point and highlight important words.
- Talking with gaps in sentences for them to fill in and finish.
- Using prompts and questions to encourage responses.
- Speaking with patience and giving time to respond.
- Attempting communication at the right moments when they are not engaged with something else and are calm.
Autism-Friendly Holidays at Calvert Trust Exmoor
As everyone is different, we understand that these points can only be used as a general guide – one of the best ways to improve communication with autistic people is to build a rapport and connection with the individual.
This is something we keep in mind here at Calvert Trust Exmoor when organising our accessible holidays in Devon.
Our breaks are designed to support those with a range of abilities, providing specialised activities and autism-friendly accommodation, facilities and adventures.
When on one of our autism-friendly holidays, our trained instructors will create a tailored experience, guiding guests through a variety of exciting activities. We ensure that guests will have the same instructor throughout their stay, helping autistic guests build a stronger bond with them.
Our accessible breaks cater to both adults and children, ensuring that everyone enjoys the activities and is encouraged to reach their full potential!
To find out more about the autism-friendly Calvert Experience, you can read our guest stories, where you’ll find numerous examples of how various autistic people have enjoyed their time with us.
For more information about booking an autism-friendly holiday, please get in touch.