By definition, individuals with autism have impairments in communication, but the degree to which individuals have communication deficits is broad. Each person diagnosed with autism has a unique mix of strengths and weaknesses, and each has a different set of language barriers that stand in the way of their being able to communicate effectively with other people.
Some individuals diagnosed with autism are also diagnosed with another condition that stands in the way of their receptive language or expressive language or other component of language. For example, some people with autism are unable to communicate effectively because of a dual diagnosis of mental retardation, brain injury, other developmental disabilities, or other gene or chromosomal disorder. Others individuals with autism may also be diagnosed with a specific language impairment, a hearing deficit, aphasia, an auditory processing disorder, or other disability that impairs their communication skills.
Some general characteristics inherent in autism create language barriers. Some people with autism assign concrete meanings to words, so they struggle with idioms, hyperbole, and symbolic language. Literal interpretation of words can result in miscommunication. For example, a youngster with autism can encounter problems at school if he suddenly sprints out of the classroom and down the hall when his teacher says, “Let’s run out to recess.” One of my students became obsessed with closing every door he encountered at school and in stores because his dad was in the habit of saying “Don’t forget to close the door” to his family.
A young adult friend with autism doesn’t always pick up on social cues. She talks about every detail of her physical and emotional health when someone casually asks the rhetorical question, “How are you?” An obsessive interest in a narrow range of topics – helicopters, sequences of letters or numbers, a real or imaginary person, or favorite movie scripts – keep some folks from paying attention to the words spoken by parents, teachers, or others around them. Other individuals with autism simply repeat what others say. Echolalia makes it difficult to carry on a conversation.
Some people with autism get frustrated with language barriers. For example, they may be able to communicate using signs, but a new teacher or aid is not fluent in sign language. Other people may communicate their opinions or needs or emotions very clearly, but inappropriately. They may bite or hit or scream or throw items in an effort to say they want something or they do not want to follow directions or they do not like a certain noise or food or activity. People around them may be distracted with the hurtful or disruptive behaviors rather than on the message.
Many language barriers stand in the way of effective communication between individuals with autism and people around them. Scouting out the barriers is the first step in helping our friends with autism connect with other people. We welcome your input and experiences. Just click on the comments button or send confidential e-mail to talk@FAQautism.com.
NOTE TO READERS AND LISTENERS: 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. Feel free to send me an email with your thoughts or challenging situations or innovative solution. Send email to talk@FAQautism.com And don’t forget to check out our website for a wealth of ideas and a glimpse into the world of autism. http://FAQautism.com