Understanding autism and ways to communicate effectively

Speak With Clarity

One of the best things you can do is speak with clear and concise words, saying simple and plain sentences that cannot have more than one meaning.

Be direct and avoid using figures of speech as non-literal language can be confusing. Slang, nuance, or sarcasm can cause confusion and double-meaning.

Avoid Terms of Endearment

Like sarcasm or slang, terms of endearment, including things like ‘honey’, ‘love’ or ‘mate’, can cause confusion and should be avoided.

The speaker may mean nothing by these terms or use them offhandedly, but a person with autism may take them literally or find them uncomfortable.

Address the Individual By Name

Say the person’s name at the beginning of a conversation, question or important statement.

This ensures they are paying attention instead of blocking out background noise. If you don’t know their name, take a moment to ask and find out (which is also just polite and helps make a connection).

Make Gentle Eye Contact If Possible

This encourages non-verbal communication and helps people with autism develop their skills in understanding facial expressions and emotion.

Again, don’t try to force this, as it can make talking even more difficult for some.

Avoid Open-Ended Questions

Something like ‘did you have a good day?’ is an open-ended question that many neurotypical people will answer without hesitation. However, questions with so many possible answers and interpretations can be challenging for people with autism to answer.

Questions that are necessary and require a specific answer are much better. It can also help to offer options or choices to help guide but not control the conversation.

Talk About What They Want to Discuss

Ask them…’how can I help you’, or’ what would you like to chat about’?

Trying to force the conversation in a certain direction is not a successful approach. Instead, talk about what they are doing and let them lead the subject.

Another trait of autism includes obsessive tendencies, which might lead to them talking a lot about one particular thing. Sticking to the topic they want to discuss keeps the conversation going and helps them develop their communication skills.

Avoid Overloading Information

People with autism can struggle to filter out less important information, which can lead to them being overloaded, meaning they struggle to process new information.

If it seems like they’re being overloaded, or are anxious, begin to slow your pace or halt the conversation. If something must be said, use minimal words and avoid questions. This break allows the individual to catch up and deal with stimuli.

If it seems like a conversation is becoming distressing, it can also be helpful to remove visual communications. While eye contact and movements are usually a good thing, during an overload, they can become unwanted stimulus.

You should also be aware of the surrounding environment – could background noise be causing overload? Are too many people talking at once? Finding a quiet place reduces sensory input and will help avoid overload.

Be Patient

If it’s necessary to wait for a response to a question, then give them time. If someone does not respond straight away, it could be that they need more time to absorb and process the information.

Expect the Unexpected

We know that people with autism may use gestures, sounds and echolalia to process and respond to specific words. Someone may use all or a few of these communication methods.

If an individual does or says something unexpected or changes the subject, do not be alarmed or try to fight it. It’s important to listen and work out what they’re trying to say. Keep being patient, go with the flow of the conversation and allow the individual to communicate in their way.

Try Written or Visual Communication

If verbal communication is less effective, try writing or getting visual. Someone who struggles to talk may be happy to restart the conversation on paper, using written words or pictures.

How to Communicate With Adults With Autism

One of the most important things to do when talking with an adult with autism is to address and converse with them as you would any other adult, and not as a child.

A person with autism may understand every word said but then may have difficulty responding verbally. It is therefore important not to assume the person has limited skills or abilities. You should also never speak as if the person is not in the room when in a group setting. By modelling appropriate behaviour, you also help show others in the group how they can best communicate with others.

Like any relationship, sometimes we need to remind ourselves, that it is not just about 'us', but it is about everyone...collectively, being respectful and understanding of each and everyone's uniqueness...let's start learning to communicate rather than, talk at.

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