Verbal and Non-verbal Communication
Communication and language are not the same. There are many ways to communicate which do not use language or which underpin language. People with autism have difficulties with non-verbal communication and may not understand the need to communicate at all. Many people with autism have a visual bias and may not think in language.
Combination of Systems for the Individual
Communication systems can be a combination of verbal language, objects of reference, symbols, photographs, written words, signs, motoric communication. They must be functional for the person, used with consistency and designed after an assessment of the individual’s requirements.
Individuals with speech often benefit from other forms of the communication, such as those listed above. Those who support autistic individuals will sometimes be hostile to the introduction of pictures or symbols for people with some speech under the misapprehension that it will discourage the individual from using their speech. However, research has shown that an individual’s verbal communication is never compromised by the use of other communication systems but their ability to communicate, even their language use, is increased.
If the individual can only understand key words in context they should not be swamped with language. Speak slowly. If you have tried to learn a second language you will know that the brain processes information at different speeds and it is only as your competence increases that you can understand language at greater speed. Imagine your language as if you are throwing shopping onto a supermarket conveyor belt. If you go too fast it all stacks up at the end!
Receptive and Expressive Language Levels Can Be Different
If a person has sophisticated use of speech do not assume that their understanding is on the same level. For instance, one young man could chat extensively about his computer game but could not answer the question ‘What do you like to eat?’ Use your listening and observational skills to assess how much the person understands.
Literal Use of Language
Communication should convey information in a clear, simple and structured way. People with autism can have a very literal use of language. Support staff, friends and family should monitor their own language carefully and guard against the use of metaphors which may be confusing or even frightening.
Match Voice and Body Language to Arousal Level
Verbal communication with the individual should be encouraging and positive and voices should be matched to the arousal levels of the individual. If the person with autism is anxious or stressed, voices should remain quiet and calm to avoid escalating anxiety levels. Body language should be relaxed and non-threatening.
Use Positive Comments and Restrict Negative Comments
It has been noted that in interactions with autistic people, comments of support staff are overwhelmingly negative ‘don’t do that…stop that…that’s wrong…’ etc. There are other ways of communicating which can be overwhelmingly positive. This can be achieved by reflection on one’s own use of language, turning it around to the positive.
Look for Communication in the Behaviour
A great deal of challenging behaviour has a communicative element. Supporters should always ask ‘What is this person trying to communicate?’ instead of just trying to find ways of stopping the behaviour. This is especially the case if a behaviour suddenly changes or if a new one begins.
Those who support people with autism must first try to understand how each individual sees and experiences the world in order to facilitate successful communication. The person with autism has to first have something to communicate, then a way of expressing it and finally a reason or need to communicate it. However, communication will only be successful if family, friends and professionals first make the attempt to enter into the world of the person with autism in order to communicate with them on their terms.