This post is for those people who interact with those of us who are on the autistic spectrum. We are able to understand and communicate with you best when you use specific types of language. I hope that this blog posts supports you in your communication.
Those of us who are on the autistic spectrum are highly logical, we use logic to interpret not only our environment but the way people interact with us. Rules are one aspect of our logical thinking. We can use rules in the same way as non-autistic people, for example saying thank-you whenever someone gives us a gift. However, we also use rules to guide us in most social situations. Sometimes, we have misunderstood or interpreted things and so develop a rule that is fundamentally flawed. For example, we may have a rule that says, ‘when people say how are you, you say fine thank-you’, which sounds fine…. However, we may apply this rule when injured and so instead of informing someone of an injury or hurt, we may say, “fine thank-you” when asked how we are. If the query had been, ‘where are you hurt?’ it would have avoided the resultant miscommunication.
When you interact with someone on the autistic spectrum, it is very important to always say what you mean and mean what you say. This applies equally to questions as statements. A generic question, ‘how are you’ is not saying what you mean, if you are meaning to elicit information about whether or not someone is hurt or injured.
In addition, most of us on the spectrum, although we can be quite argumentative and talk incessantly (or talk very little if at all), we may not actually take in all the words within the wordy statements or questions of others. There are a couple of reasons for this which vary from person to person. Some autistics are slow to processing spoken words, some have sequencing difficulties, some will be distracted by other sensory input. Additionally if an autistic is emotionally or sensorially overloaded they will be less able to take in and understand what is being said to them. You may not be able to tell if this is the case for the person that you are talking to. It may be obvious if someone cannot/doesn’t talk back to you, but this does not mean that they have nothing to say, just that you need to find out how they wish to communicate back with you.
As a general rule, that applies to most children and young people on the autistic spectrum (adults may have more advanced communication strategies and will have learnt more idioms etc):
1. Say what you mean, mean what you say
2. Use clear and logical language, avoiding jargon.
3. Do not talk just for the sake of talking, keep to the point and then wait for a response.
4. If we are slow processors of words, please only ask one question at a time. Only give one instruction and wait until it has been followed to give the next instruction.
5. Do not expect an understanding of body language or tone of voice. For example, just because you raise your voice when you are angry does not mean the child/young person knows that is what you mean. It is better to say, “I am angry now.”
6. Clarify that the child/young person has understood what you think you have said/asked.
7. Do not get angry when told NO, after asking, “would you do x, y or z?” No is a legitimate response to a would you question! If it is an order not a real question, phrase it as such by saying what you mean and meaning what you say.
8. Be aware that distracting things in the environment may receive more attention than your voice, unless you gain the child/young person’s attention first. Autistic people do not automatically prioritise speech over other sensory input, nor do we automatically prioritise people over other things.
9. Your emotional response may not be the same as an autistic person’s emotional response. You would not expect your friends to all have the same emotional reactions that you do, it is ok for an autistic person to have a different response too. If you find a response offensive, say so calmly and politely. For example, “it is rude to laugh when someone says they lost their job. Please don’t do this, it makes people angry.”
10. If you don’t like something said or done by a child/young person on the spectrum, be clear about what you don’t like and why. Express this in two short sentences, no more.
If you are the parent/teacher of a child/young person on the autistic spectrum or the friend/partner of an adult on the spectrum, you may be asked or feel the need to interpret situations or events for that person from time to time. Adults and young people may ask for this input and may not welcome it if they have not asked. For younger children it is important that you support them to interpret events and conversations as others have meant them to be interpreted. This aides in the development of accurate and useful rules for the children to follow, and may help prevent the application of rules in situations where they are inappropriate. For example, autistic children do not just know that you speak more quietly in some places than others, they need to be told. Another example is the type of words being used. Autistic children may not realise that the new word they heard in the playground is not appropriate as a name for their dog/teacher/teddy for example.
Autistic teens are finding their way in the world and have to learn that the intent behind some language is not the same as others. Other teens can tell by body language or tone of voice that someone has malicious intent, but autistic teens are unlikely to pick up on that. Parents, good friends and teachers can be invaluable in helping teens navigate their way as they learn about good friends and mean people pretending to be friends.
Just as an aside, I work with lots of kids on the spectrum with great senses of humour, and I share lots of laughs with other aspies online and in person. Our humour tends to be visual and/or word based for those of us who love words. However, we often do not understand many common jokes and either ignore them or laugh when other people laugh because we have learnt that we should laugh when everyone around us is laughing. Autistic children and teens benefit from finding others who share their sense of humour, and being encouraged to use humour to diffuse tense situations in the playground and school, rather than aggression. This helps with confidence and schools like it!