Jody Houston, Behaviour Programme Coordinator, The National Autistic Society's Radlett Lodge School explores communication and provides some practical tips.
What do we mean by 'communication difficulties'?
For someone with a diagnosis of an autism spectrum disorder (ASD), there is some kind of difficulty with social interaction and/or communication. This is a large part of the diagnostic criterion. But what do we mean by this? When we talk about communication, we are talking about a huge aspect of human life that covers a range of behaviours, for example:
- pre-verbal skills: using body language to communicate, for example pointing or taking another person’s arm to show them something
- speech and listening skills: the ability to speak simple words and phrases, as well as understand spoken language
- complex social interactions: for example adjusting how you are talking depending on the context, reading body language etc.
An autistic person can give the appearance of having ‘mastered’ communication. However, it is important to understand that these communication and social skills are not innately learnt as an autistic person develops. They are skills that need to be explicitly taught and practised. In doing so the chances are they have failed many attempts to get things right, each failure affecting the individual’s confidence. Social interactions are likely to bring with them an increase in anxiety and be exhausting to participate in.
It is also important to remember that an autistic person’s ability to understand or use spoken language can vary depending on their anxiety or stress levels. For example, I have seen a young boy with very good verbal skills being unable to use his words and having to frantically seek out a symbol saying ‘help’ to communicate his frustrations.
What can you do to help?
- Know the individual. Every autistic person is unique, so the best way to help someone is to take the time to get to know them. You might find that if you ask them they can give you a great insight into what can help. For example, I’ve worked with several young people who can tell me I’ve used too many words, and I need to write things down.
- Don’t be fooled! Many autistic people can present themselves very well, however they may be masking significant difficulties. For example, someone may have very good expressive language skills, however their receptive skills might not match this. They might need information to be given visually or in smaller chunks to help them follow instructions. Rather than giving instructions verbally, think if they can be presented on the whiteboard or work sheet? Can you break an exercise down into clear steps to help them complete the task?
- Structure. Giving structure to a social interaction can help, for example unstructured times are often difficult for autistic people, so if you have a young person struggling to engage at playtimes (and who is also at risk of bullying during this time), they may benefit from some kind of lunch club (particularly if you can utilise an area of interest!)
- HELP! Try to develop ways to help them to develop their communication skills, whether the chance to practise their skills (eg using their areas of interest to meet like-minded people), or ways they can ask for help (eg a help request slip or a simple code). This may need support from your SENCO or external professionals.
- Empathy. An important step to take to help someone is to try and understand the world from their point of view. This can help you to understand and come up with ways to help. Understanding that someone gets cross when they are asked to do a task because they are struggling to process the demand can help us to frame it more appropriately next time.