Autism and Communication

I am increasingly convinced that we need to come up with a different set of milestones for how less verbally-inclined people learn language. Over and over, I see studies where researchers and educators work very hard (and not always successfully) to get autistic kids to meet the various stages of typical language development… contrasted with numerous stories in which autistic kids, teens, and even adults finally acquire language skills (verbal or written) in unexpected ways after years of ineffective therapy (well-known examples include Carly, Emma, Tito, Larry and Tracy, and more recently Drew, Mike, and Ethan).

Sometimes, the language acquisition is described as “sudden” or “unprompted.” Other times it is the definite result of deliberate struggle. But in either case, it seems clear to me that the professionals invariably mis-evaluate the person’s communication potential because they are looking for the “typical” developmental stages rather than acknowledging that communication and language skills may evolve along a different trajectory in non-neurotypicals.

My experience with nonverbal/preverbal kids also leads me to suspect that at other times, some of the “typical” steps are present, but in a form which often goes unrecognized. Attentiveness, for example, looks different in an autistic child (or adult!) than a neurotypical (NT) one. A NT child who is listening intently to an adult is generally seated, relatively immobile, and making eye contact, whereas an autistic child giving you their full and undivided attention may be pacing, rocking, or engaged in another physical activity… and almost certainly isn’t letting themself get distracted by trying to stare at the speaker’s face!

I recently got to spend a day with Tangles, after not seeing her in quite some time. Her mother says that she’s making a great deal of progress– trying to do more for herself, eating with utensils (albeit not very neatly), and verbalizing a lot more. I asked if there were any particular “homework” (therapies or programs) for me to practice with her, and she laughed and said “just do what you always do with her. It gets her to talk more.”

That surprised me a little bit, because I didn’t realize that what I was doing with her was anything particularly special. But I guess it is. Here’s the thing: I engage with her. I don’t just talk around her or at her or even to her (although I do all those things at times)… I converse with her. Even if her part of the conversation consists entirely of simple syllables like “ha” and “buh” and “foo.” I listen when she says them. I repeat them back to her, sometimes exactly as she said them and sometimes with variations. I get excited when she mimics my variations or comes up with ones of her own. I did this with Fishy too.

I also do the same pattern of interaction in nonverbal ways, especially with Rhythm. We hold conversations in patterns of clapping, stomping, face-making, or touching each other’s hands. We share attention and direct each other’s attention to things– feeling textures or watching patterns or listening to sounds together. These things are interactions, examples of joint attention, and without them, these children have no reason to even TRY communicating with me.

Think of what we do with babies. We crouch down at their level. We engage in things that interest them– playing peek-a-boo, shaking rattles, cooing in baby-talk, giving them the things they want like food, warmth, motion, smiles, bright colors. We connect with them, with what interests them. This is how they get the idea that they can connect with us in return.

Autistic children are all too used to having their interests (if not their needs) ignored by those around them. Parents often speak of their autistic children as being “in their own world”– but all children are. The difference is that there are standardized bridges between the worlds of NT children and adults– storybooks, games, and above all lots of verbal interactions. Many autistic kids, I suspect, would be just as happy as NT ones to share activities and special moments with their parents, but the parents are often oblivious to how to engage in the experiences that excite their kids, and instead resort to trying over and over again to drag autistic kids into activities that they do not enjoy.

Tangles did something special that day, and as usual, I came close to missing it. I had brought her a handful of brightly-colored drinking straws, because she enjoys chewing on plastic. She shook them out of their bag and started chewing one right away, babbling at me happily. I sat with her making sounds for a while. She played with the straws. Then she shoved one of the ones she was holding towards my face. At first I thought she was just playing with it. Then I suddenly realized: she was trying to put it in my mouth. I almost laughed, but then the implication hit me: she was sharing something she liked with me. It was as though I had brought her a box of chocolates and she had realized that the friendly or polite thing to do was to offer me one. So I took the straw in my mouth, said thank you, and chewed on it for a while. And I was incredibly touched, and proud of her.

Yes, the intent to communicate is there. We just have to be careful that we don’t miss it because it doesn’t look exactly the way we expected.

12 thoughts on “Autism and Communication”

  1. In a speaking world, non-verbal people are immediately assumed to have low ability at functioning and coexisting. Yet, exceptional patterned thinking and musicality should be understood as as a form of communication. Autism and perfect pitch are the reason why my non-verbal clients make glorious music when taught in the classical tradition. They are not imitating, it is not a behavior. They are originating from their brilliant minds.


    1. Indeed! There is often a huge gap in autistic people between intelligence and verbal language ability. Some excel at music, others at art or math or writing poetry. I think it’s very important that autistic kids be given multiple ways to express themselves. I recently had an 11-year-old “low-functioning” client tell me that she wants to learn to play guitar. I hope she gets the opportunity to do so!!


  2. Reblogged this on Spectrum Perspectives and commented:
    I think because we neurotypicals (non-autistics) tend to speak a “similar” language that we make assumptions about how others communicate. But theses assumptions are cultural and not all of the “rules” carry over from culture to culture. Body language is different, the same gestures carry different meanings (eye contact, hand gestures, etc.). By opening our eyes, hearts and minds we can learn much and cross bridges of communication we didn’t know existed. Stop, look, listen, and don’t take things for granted – a great policy in general 😉


  3. I shared this on our facebook page today, but I thought I’d stop by and leave a comment. You are spot on- I do this with my own nonverbal daughter and we have a deep connection- so deep that people always say her autism is “atypical”. But I don’t know if it is atypical or if we just are connected since I respect her interests, and like you said don’t try to coerce her to “enjoy” things that don’t interest her at all- instead we interact during the things she does genuinely enjoy.


    1. Thanks for sharing! And thanks for being an awesome parent, too. I think your daughter is so lucky to have a family who is willing to reach into her world instead of trying to drag her out into the “normal” one. I really suspect many more autistic children would be happier, calmer, and more cooperative if their parents made this kind of effort to connect.


  4. A summary of my view along these lines is in my last post but summarizing…i think parents waste time trying to put autistic kids on the NT path then being upset when they move slowly on it….i dont think they are meant to be there…they are supposed to be traveling their own. The paths merge at times and intersect, but they are different.

    Im so glad that autistic ppl are sharing their lives now…it had never crossed my mind before several tried to explain it, that for some autistic ppl english is a second language of sorts…that it is not how they think or prefer to communicate, and that it is difficult to transcribe thought into words (ignoring any motor planning problems altogether).

    I do know what you mean though, there are, I’m sure, soooo many things i miss because it doesn’t register…there have often been times ive watched a video of bug multiple times just because its cute/funny and the tenth time i finally notice something he was doing.


  5. I agree wholeheartedly with you. I have always felt that in communication we miss the ques. I work with different populations of people who are “misunderstood”. I always insist that the people around them must carry the burden of figuring out the individual’s communication style. This opens minds and helps them concentrate on the current skills. If you can get there with a person, you will be able to build on it.


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