Communication

Simple explanation

Autistic people often have difficulty communicating and interacting with others. Communicating is much more than just talking. We communicate with our facial expressions, gestures and voice intonation. Jokes, double meanings, and other more complex details of language can be difficult to understand for anyone, so you can imagine it’s even more difficult for autistic people. There are also many autistic people who don't speak, or who speak in a different way. A non-verbal autistic person (who doesn't speak) might use other modes of communication such as gestures or images (pictograms).

Autistic people can face many communication challenges. Language is a subtle art with many variables. Communicating isn’t just about sending and receiving a message. Difficulty in understanding and making oneself understood can generate a great deal of frustration and isolate the person socially. It’s important to remember that every person with autism is unique, and that their challenges can vary depending on many factors, including age, level of functioning and individual skills.

Difficulties in communication and social interaction are one of the mainstays of the DSM-5 diagnosis of autism.

Spoken language

Some autistic people do not use spoken language. For many, language may come late and then become fully functional, while for others it may not. In the case of autistic people who do not use spoken language, communication may take place through other channels, such as natural gestures, pictograms or the electronic tablet. A language disorder is often one of the first clues leading to a future diagnosis.

Many autistic people are not only verbal, but can also have a particularly rich and sustained vocabulary. They sometimes use this to mask their social difficulties, but in prolonged interactions these difficulties will still become apparent. Very young children can sometimes be impressive in their use of advanced technical terms, and very comfortable explaining concepts that are close to their hearts, especially if it’s related to their special interest. Yet communicating is much broader than simply passing on information one-sidedly.

Initiating a conversation

Approaching a person, entering a conversation that’s already begun, approaching a group, knowing when and at what pace to interact in a discussion (the timing between turns), especially if it contains several interlocutors, all these things can be obstacles to starting and continuing a conversation.

Exit conservation

Many autistic people don’t notice when the other person has had enough. If they are enthusiastic about the topic of discussion, especially if it is close to their specific interest, they may not know when to stop and may not see the impatience signals. If they themselves wish to leave the exchange, they may find it difficult to know when and how to do so. Saying goodbye in the right way, interrupting or not, using the right words – the challenges are many.

Choosing the right words

Language is also a question of context. The vocabulary used will vary from one situation to the next: whether you’re with family, friends, at work, in a public place or elsewhere, language will change.

Innuendo, irony and sarcasm

Autistic people often understand the first meaning of words at the expense of the subtleties of the second meaning. Once they’ve memorized the meaning of a sentence, they may be able to understand it, but it may continue to make them uncomfortable.

The non-verbal

The non-verbal part of communication is essential to its success. Someone deprived of this information will have a big gap in interpreting what is being said.

Voice modulation and intonation

For autistic people, modulating their voice and its volume can be challenging, especially in noisy environments or in groups. They may be unaware of the volume of their voice, or have difficulty modulating it when there are too many stimuli. They will therefore speak too loudly, or not loudly enough, regardless of the context. Also, intonation is sometimes monotonous among autistic people. In other words, some use little variation in the tone of their voice.

I received a phone call that made me very happy. As I was taking down the information, the secretary asked me why I was angry with her. I realized it was because I was too happy. This made me speed up my speech and my voice become higher pitched. So from an external perception, I could sound angry. When I'm experiencing emotions, I have difficulty managing my intonations.

Body language

During exchanges, people use gestures to enhance communication. It can be difficult for people with autism to understand the body language of others.

I'm very attentive to the micromovements and other clues that people can show during exchanges. However, I often misunderstand everything. We were on the road and I was surprised to see a man dancing happily on the pedestrian crossing. My friend pointed out that he was actually angry, as a driver was blocking his path.

Autistic people can also move in peculiar ways, which can lead to them being misunderstood. Some don’t move at all, or move very little.

Eye contact

Many autistic people have difficulty coping with eye contact. Some will opt for strategies such as looking sideways, while others are unable to do eye contact at all, or do so very little. Many have been forced, or even trained, to do so from an early age, but since it’s not natural for them they may actually overdo eye contact. Others may find this mannerism to be confrontational or even frightening because it’s so unusual to them. It’s harmless, but it can cause real discomfort.

Facial expressions

Autistic people often have peculiar facial expressions, such as a fixed smile, permanent neutrality of expression, or inconsistency between what is said and what is seen. Others have exaggerated facial expressions, forced laughter, or caricatured faces. It’s important to understand that, for a person with autism, it’s often not natural to communicate in this way. So they have to make a conscious effort to use this method, which may look a little artificial to an outsider.

Understanding and interpreting facial expressions is no easy task. It may seem obvious when it comes to laughing and crying, but a face has many more nuances than that. A person may feel frustrated by an autistic person’s lack of response to their feelings, but it’s important to remember that it’s possible the autistic person didn’t realize that the other person was going through emotional distress.

Echolalia

Echolalia is the repetition of words or phrases heard from someone else, on the radio, in a cartoon, and so on.

Immediate echolalia

The person will immediately repeat the sounds heard. They won’t necessarily understand the meaning, rather like a parrot. Many autistic people use echolalia.

If someone surprises me with a phrase that makes me feel uncomfortable, I'll tend to repeat what the person said word for word, sometimes several times. I can guarantee you that if it's something bad, it creates a lot of discomfort. It's better to laugh about it.

Delayed echolalia

Delayed echolalia will cause the person to repeat phrases at later times outside the initial context they heard them.

Young non-autistic children can also repeat words or phrases they have heard while they are learning to speak. Their subconscious memory is storing the sounds and testing them, even if they don’t necessarily understand the meaning yet. But for many autistic children, this behaviour persists beyond early language acquisition.

Autistic people who use functional verbal language may also use echolalia.

In times of intense stress or pain, I repeat, damn, the ball ricocheted, damn the ball ricocheted, it's like that, it's delayed echolalia.

Selective Mutism

Some autistic people are unable to express themselves verbally in specific contexts. For example, a child may be able to speak at home but not at school. This is not to say that the child objects or does so voluntarily. It’s often a question of the speech mechanism being literally blocked. In a person who has access to speech in most contexts, too strong a stimulus, a stressor or some other factor can temporarily deprive them of speech. Speech is there, but temporarily inaccessible.

Valérie Jessica Laporte

Writer and content creator (in French) about autism