Welcome to day three of the A to Z Challenge, in which I focus on autism. Today, I want to focus on one of the core areas of impairment in autism: communication.
Children and adults with autism have problems in non-verbal and/or verbal communication. Some individuals with autism do not speak at all or speech development is delayed. Others on the surface have great speech with an extraordinary vocabulary, but have problems with the social use of language (pragmatics).
Some common problems with communication in autistic individuals include:
- Rigid and repetitive language. People with autism may say things that have no meaning in the conversation they’re having. They may repeat the same words or phrases over and over again, or they may repeat what another person has said (echolalia). Immediate echolalia occurs when a person repeats what has just been said, for example, answering a question with the same question. Delayed echolalia means that a person repeats what they’ve heard earlier. For example, they may ask “Do you want something to drink?” whenever they want a drink. Some people with autism use what they’ve heard on television in regular conversation.
- Talking in a high-pitched, sing-song voice or in a monotonous tone of voice.
- Being able to talk about certain topics only. Some people with autism can hold lengthy monologues on a topic of interest even though they cannot carry on a two-way conversation on the same topic or cannot talk at all about other topics.
- >Uneven speech and language development. Some children will not speak at all then start speaking in full sentences. Others will develop a large vocabulary about a specific topic of interest, as I said above. Some children can read before the age of five but do not comprehend what they’ve read (a condition known as hyperlexia). Some people with autism cannot speak but can type.
- Poor non-verbal communication. Many peopole with autism avoid eye contact, though some can learn to stare at another person’s eyes to fake eye contact. People with autism also often won’t use gestures to give meaning to their speech, such as pointing to objects.
In order to help an autistic child reach their potential in communicative abilities, parents and carers will need to pay attention to a child’s strengths and needs. For example, some children will not use any speech but will be able to learn sign language or learn to communicate using a speech app.
When a child repeats other people’s words, usually at first it has no meaning. However, echolalia can be a pathway to communicaiton, because a child will often ultimately start using repeated word in communicative scripts that do have meaning.
There are many stratgies parents can use to enhance an autistic child’s communication development. For example:
- Take on the role of a helper and teacher. When a child is still particularly non-communicative, it may be tempting to do things for them without asking whether they need help. It is better to ask whether the child needs help and give them an opportunity to try for themselves first.
- Encourage the child to do things with others. Again, it is tempting to let the child be completely in their own world, because many parents view this as independence. However, autistic children (and all children!) need interaction to improve their communication. Try to join the child in whatever activity they’re involved in. When the child shows anger, this is a sign that they are interacting and it is better than no interaction at all, so persevere.
- Slow down and give the child a chance to communicate. Many children with autism are slow to process information, so it helps to slow down. It is tempting to rush, because, after all, as a parent you can’t attend to the child 24/7, but slowing down will ultimately encourage the child to communicate.
- Give the child a reason to communicate. If you give in to a child’s every demand immediately, they will not learn to interact. It is important to create situations in which the child is encouraged to communicate more than just their immediate needs and wants.
As the child matures and develops more communicative skills, it is important to move from the helper/teacher role on to a role of a partner and to even follow the child’s lead. That way, a child will learn increasing reciprocity in communication.