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Autism and Communication Problems: All You Need to Know

May 24, 2024

Dr. Temple Grandin’s comparison of feeling like “an anthropologist on Mars” resonates deeply for parents raising children with autism, who often struggle to navigate autism and communication problems. Communication is crucial for human connection and understanding, especially for children on the spectrum who rely on it to navigate their surroundings and express themselves.

Difficulties in effective communication can often lead to frustration and behavioral issues, underscoring the importance of finding practical ways to empower individuals to express themselves. In this article, we will look at the reasons behind communication problems for people with autism and share possible ways to improve communication in both verbal and non-verbal autistic children.

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Common communication problems in autism

Children with autism often face communication challenges that can significantly impact their interactions with others. For instance, initiating a conversation typically begins with nonverbal cues like eye contact, which many individuals with autism struggle with.

As the conversation progresses, difficulties may arise in understanding social niceties such as greetings and small talk, which can be perplexing for those with autism spectrum disorders.

On top of that, nuances in social interaction, such as tone of voice, facial expressions, and appropriate gestures, may not come naturally to individuals with ASD, requiring explicit instruction and practice.

Some children with autism demonstrate advanced language skills, surpassing their neurotypical peers in vocabulary and formal language use. However, despite their proficiency in memorizing language rules and learning new words, applying language for social interaction poses challenges.

Speech therapists and autism professionals often refer to this aspect of language use as “pragmatic communication,” focusing on the way language is utilized in social contexts rather than its structural aspects.

Navigating these communication challenges can be daunting for both children and adults with autism. While some individuals may exhibit savant-like language abilities, others may struggle with verbal communication altogether.

How do children with autism communicate?

Children with autism often have very specific interests. They may like to talk about such an interest at great length without regard for their listener or social situation. Turn-taking and asking about the other person’s interests may simply not occur to them, as social cues are often missed.

They may also speak in a manner that is viewed as different from the norm by neurotypical individuals. This could include talking in a sing-song or high-pitched voice, quoting excerpts from movies not related to the conversation, or repeating the same phrase over and over again.

Children on the spectrum may also not grasp the sensitivity of their audience to certain topics and may speak about things regarded as inappropriate or taboo for general conversation.

It’s important to consider just how difficult it must be to partake in something where the rules are never the same and no one can explain precisely what to expect from each new communication encounter. Then, we realize just how much empathy and understanding children with ASD need when it comes to communication.

Tips for improving communication in autistic children

Every child should be able to communicate in some capacity, and they should not be deprived of this right because they don’t use speech. Here are some tips on how to improve communication in autistic children.

1. Encourage nonverbal communication

Every child deserves the ability to communicate, whether through speech or other means. Teaching nonverbal skills can sometimes pave the way for verbal communication.

When a child learns to express their needs and control their environment, they may feel motivated to develop their communication skills through speech further.

A child using picture cards for communication
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For example, a nonverbal child with autism may be taught to use picture cards or a communication device to express their needs and preferences. By learning to select a picture of their favorite toy or snack, the child can effectively communicate their desires without relying solely on speech.

2. Focus on social functions

Shifting the focus from words and sentences to the social aspect of communication is crucial when developing interventions for language development in autistic children. 

By emphasizing the social function of communication, interventions can be more effective in facilitating improved communication skills.

For example, instead of just teaching the word “ball,” demonstrate how to ask a peer to play with the ball or how to comment on someone’s good throw during a game. This approach emphasizes the social aspect of communication and helps the child understand the practical use of language in social settings.

3. Use developmentally appropriate strategies

Employ strategies that are developmentally appropriate and focus on social-pragmatic aspects of communication. This approach involves using nonverbal forms of communication as a bridge to speech, allowing children to transition to verbal communication gradually.

For example, for a nonverbal child with autism who enjoys playing with blocks, a developmentally based strategy might involve using visual aids or picture cards to encourage communication during playtime.

The caregiver could start by showing the child a picture card of a block when they want to play, gradually introducing more complex communication concepts as the child progresses, such as requesting specific colors or asking for more blocks. 

4. Encourage active participation

Provide autistic children with intensified opportunities to participate in activities similar to those of their neurotypical peers. Engaging in these activities creates a conducive environment for learning and practicing communication skills.

For example, during a group play session, you may encourage each child to take turns selecting a game or activity. This allows the child to participate in decision-making actively and promotes social interaction skills.


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5. Make use of teachable moments

Take advantage of teachable moments that naturally occur during interactions, especially during daily activities like meal times. These moments provide valuable opportunities for learning and practicing communication skills in real-life situations.

For example, during a family meal, an autistic child may struggle to verbalize their desire for a favorite food item. Instead of immediately giving it to them, the parent should encourage the child to use gestures.

By modeling the appropriate language, such as saying, “Can you show me with your hands?” the child learns the connection between nonverbal cues and effective communication.

How to help nonverbal children communicate

A child’s communication needs should be met whether they choose to verbalize their needs or not. If your child is nonverbal, here are some things you can do to help them communicate.

Try teaching them sign language

Introducing sign language can offer a means of communication for nonverbal children with autism. While it may not directly lead to further language development, it provides a valuable tool for immediate communication. For example, a child could learn to sign “eat” when hungry.

Use Picture Exchange Communication Systems (PECS)

Utilizing drawings and PECS empowers nonverbal children to initiate communication exchanges. By selecting or drawing a picture representing their desired object, they learn to make requests. For instance, a child might exchange a picture of a toy for the actual toy.

In this way, single-word requests are taught to the autistic child. Communication boards and cue cards are helpful for nonverbal children and can support verbal children in stressful situations

Use technology

Incorporating technology allows for teaching visual language through pictures, symbols, and video clips on electronic devices. This method can enhance comprehension and communication skills. For example, using a tablet app with picture symbols for daily activities.

A mom and a young boy using a tablet for communication
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Supporting your autistic child with communication difficulties

Understanding your child’s perspective is key to promoting effective communication. Recognize that they may not naturally grasp language and social interactions as neurotypical individuals do.

You can better support their learning and progress by approaching communication from their unique standpoint. Encourage opportunities for your child to interact with peers, providing a supportive environment where they can practice functional communication skills.

Create an environment that encourages communication by allowing your child to express their needs and desires. Instead of preemptively fulfilling their needs, provide opportunities for them to communicate, negotiate, and practice both verbal and nonverbal communication skills.

FAQs

Q: What does autistic communication look like?

A: Autistic communication varies widely but may include challenges with verbal expression, difficulty understanding social cues, and reliance on nonverbal communication such as gestures, facial expressions, or picture communication systems. Some individuals with autism may have advanced language skills but struggle with pragmatic aspects of communication, while others may be nonverbal and rely on alternative methods to express themselves.

Q: How do you talk to an autistic person?

A: When speaking with an autistic person, approach communication with patience and understanding. Focus on clear and concise language, allowing them time to process information and express themselves comfortably.

Q: Why are some autistic people nonverbal?

A: Some autistic individuals may be nonverbal due to challenges in speech and language development stemming from differences in brain function and sensory processing. These difficulties can impact their ability to express themselves verbally, leading to reliance on alternative forms of communication.

References:

Ciccia A. (2011) Pragmatic Communication. In: Kreutzer J.S., DeLuca J., Caplan B. (eds) Encyclopedia of Clinical Neuropsychology. Springer, New York, NY. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-0-387-79948-3_914.

Paul R. (2008). Interventions to improve communication in autism. Child and adolescent psychiatric clinics of North America, 17(4), 835–x. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chc.2008.06.011

Wodka EL, Mathy P, Kalb L. Predictors of phrase and fluent speech in children with autism and severe language delay. Pediatrics. 2013 Apr;131(4):e1128-34. doi: 10.1542/peds.2012-2221. Epub 2013 Mar 4. PMID: 23460690

Fuller, E.A., Kaiser, A.P. The Effects of Early Intervention on Social Communication Outcomes for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder: A Meta-analysis. J Autism Dev Disord 50, 1683–1700 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10803-019-03927-z 

Carruthers, S., Pickles, A., Slonims, V., Howlin, P. and Charman, T. (2020), Beyond intervention into daily life: A systematic review of generalisation following social communication interventions for young children with autism. Autism Research, 13: 506-522. https://doi.org/10.1002/aur.2264

Cummins, C., Pellicano, E. and Crane, L. (2020), Autistic adults’ views of their communication skills and needs. International Journal of Language & Communication Disorders, 55: 678-689. https://doi.org/10.1111/1460-6984.12552

Language and Communication in Autism: An Integrated View, Patricia J. Prelock, PhD, CCC-SLP , Nickola Wolf Nelson, PhD, CCC-SLP, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pcl.2011.10.008

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