Young people with autism have a wide range of abilities in communication. This may vary from using language competently to being non-verbal.
Non verbal people can still communicate using alternatives to speech – visuals, signs, etc. Some young people with autism may use speech or alternatives only to have their needs met, rather to instigate or develop interaction with others. Some may require support to recognise the importance of communication. Some young people may repeat what others have said (echolalia) to communicate.
Some young people may talk at others without being aware of or picking up on typical responses. In these situations a person's expressive language may not be matched by appropriate levels of understanding (or receptive skills).
It is important to remember that communication is more than speech, words, or sentences. It is greater than listening and following directions or answering questions. It’s more than ‘having’ or not ‘having’ language. Communication is about interaction, engaging, participating in a 2-way process, regardless of method.
Difficulties with non-verbal communication may include:
- ‘reading’ or interpreting facial expressions and body language
- using eye contact appropriately
Difficulties with verbal communication may result in a pupil with autism having:
- a very literal understanding of language
- difficulties turn taking in conversation
- repetitive conversations or based around their own special interests without regard to the social context
- competent language but not necessarily comprehending at the same apparent level
- difficulty understanding jokes, sarcasm and inferred meaning
- difficulties in understanding and using tone, pitch, volume and intonation correctly.
A pupil with autism may take up to ten seconds, or more, to process an instruction or comment. All staff in the classroom should consider the time they allow pupils to process information before expecting a response – or repeating or rephrasing which means processing time has to start again! Supporting communication with visual cues will assist understanding and provide processing time after the words have ‘disappeared’.
Young people with autism are not immune from other speech/language disorders e.g. fluency, voice, speech sound difficulties, physical eating, drinking and swallowing problems.
The role of Pupil Voice for children and young people with autism is crucial. The Education (Additional Support for Learning) (Scotland) (amended 2009) strengthens the rights of children and young people with autism to have their views taken into account in the discussion, monitoring and evaluation of their learning. This will require competency in skills which may be very challenging for young people with autism e.g. in self reflection, rating own and other's work and effort, recognising goals and steps to get there, organisastion of time.
The majority of pupils with autism will at some point have assessment or input from speech and language therapy. The role of the therapist can be varied - to ascertain language levels, screen for other communication difficulties, train staff, offer advice and strategies when current approaches are not being effective. Communication is the responsibility of everyone supporting the child, not just the Speech and Language Therapist.
Key questions around communication and autism include:
- How can we support a young person with autism to communicate?
- How do we communicate with somebody with autism?
- Will they understand our words or actions?
- Can they tell us what they think, want, need?
- Do they understand the power of communication?
For more information on these key issues click here
- Allow extra time for processing language – wait longer for a response to questions or instructions
- Check understanding by asking the young person to repeat back what they have to do
- Avoid overloading the young person with language if they are upset, angry or excited. Even people with normally adequate language skills can find these situations too difficult if they are trying to deal with emotions and processing language at the same time.
- If possible, only one person should talk and language should be simplified and reduced to a minimum.
- Use social stories, symbols, writing, etc. to back up verbal language as these ways of giving information stay constant, consistent and can be revisited, unlike the spoken word
- Give instructions in the order they are to be carried out e.g. “after you do pages 3 and 4 in your workbook, take your library book out and read one chapter” instead of “before you take your library book out and read one chapter, do pages 3 and 4 in your workbook”
- Keep non-verbal signals clear and simple – avoid over-exaggerated facial expressions and gestures
- Avoid sarcasm, idioms and use of implied language unless you have time to explain what you mean
- Don’t assume that because a young person has superficially good expressive language, that their understanding of language is at the same level
- Give positive rather than negative instructions i.e. say what you do want to happen, not what you don’t want e.g. “sit down” rather than “stop standing up”
- Accept the way the young person communicates – signs, symbols or the written word are just as valid as speech
- Make a point of reinforcing good attempts at communication from the young person. Sometimes too much emphasis is placed on changing communication attempts, but there are often times when the young person does get it right – they need to know this too!
- Decide what are the most important communication skills to develop for each individual’s personal circumstances. Think about what will make real life situations easier for that young person rather than what is just an easy skill to teach e.g. being able to communicate that he/she needs help is more important than saying “please” and “thank you”