“The students diagnosed with autism in my classes have vastly different skills,” commented a teacher. “For example, some of the students are non-verbal whereas others seem to talk constantly. Some are able to express themselves quite clearly, while others simply echo what they have heard. Some of the non-verbal students can communicate with basic sign language or with symbols, but others seem to pay no attention to visual cues. I want to do what I can to help each student communicate more effectively, but there seems to be a flood of different factors involved.”
Ineffective communication is a characteristic of autism that is manifested in vastly different ways in different individuals. For example, some people with autism may not be able to speak any words, but they have rather sophisticated receptive language skills. Other individuals may be able to speak very clearly, but they only talk obsessively about a very narrow range of topics. Yet other people with autism interpret words and phrases quite literally, so they have difficulty understanding abstractions, metaphors, parables, and other commonsymbolic language.
We tend to look at communication simplistically, inadvertently lumping individuals into one of two categories: (1) verbal or (2) non-verbal. But, in reality, communication is a very complex process, and a breakdown at any point on the language highway can cause deficits in communication. And the intricacies of autism can create uneven language skills.
So, for example, some individuals may have good receptive and expressive language, but their autism stands in the way of their being able or willing to communicate with other people. Some people with autism have no problems conversing or talking extemporaneously, but they have great difficulty recalling the answers to specific questions. On the other hand, some individuals can state complex facts or recite memorized poems without hesitation, but they are unable to carry on a simple conversation with another person or to converse on the telephone. Other people with autism may have very refined vocabularies, but, rather than initiating a conversation, they only speak when echoing the words of another person
As we said earlier, a person with autism can have sophisticated expressive language, but significant deficits in their receptive language can make it seem as if they have poor communication skills. It can work the other way as well. A person can have no problem understanding and processing what is said to them, but they are unable to initiate conversations or verbalize their thoughts. When we look at the whole picture – all aspects of language – we can help pinpoint the areas of strength and weakness for each individual. That allows us to implement strategies to help our friends with autism communicate more effectively.
We welcome your input. Tell us about your experiences with uneven language skills or about strategies you have found help individuals with autism compensate for these communication challenges. Just send an e-mail to FAQautism.com.
Note to FAQautism.com listeners and readers: I am Cathy Knoll, a board certified music therapist and long-time friend of many folks with autism. At FAQautism.com we are committed to providing free, practical, everyday tips for making life better for people with autism. You can click on a button to send me an email with your thoughts or challenging situations or innovative solutions. Check out our website for a wealth of ideas and a glimpse into the world of autism. www.FAQautism.com