This is a continuation of a series I started with my last post focusing on how to better connect with individuals diagnosed with an Autism Spectrum Disorder. For the purpose of these posts I am referring to individuals on all levels of the Autism Spectrum with the term 'Autism.' The previous posted emphasized communicating in a direct form and not becoming offended when that direct form of communication is given to you.
This weeks recommendation for communication is succinctness. People with Autism tend to only be able to process a few words at a time, so long monologues and lectures tend to go misunderstood. After the first few words, the person’s thoughts are likely to go somewhere else like “When can I leave this long conversation and tend to my personal interests?” If they are truly interested in being part of the conversation they may be thinking of what to say next instead of taking in everything that you are saying to them. Keeping messages short and to the point will helpful them be understood better. If there is much to be said, then break it up into many smaller segments. When it comes to expression, people with Autism will typically speak to you in a very succinct manner, unless it is about a preferred topic, then the person will likely respond in a wave of details.
When dealing with literal thinkers, you want to be very specific with what you say. People with Autism often misinterpret generalities due to poor ability to inference. Therefore, when trying to get a specific message across say it exactly the way it was meant to be interpreted. Try to phrase questions in a way that results in either a yes/no answer or can be answered in a short phrase or sentence. Open ended questions will typically result in blank stares or awkward pauses, while the person tries to figure out what was meant or how to answer the question. If the listener appears hesitant offer some options for possible responses. For example, if you ask “What do you want to do today?” and you get a blank stare or “I don’t know,” you could suggest a couple of activities for the person to choose. If making a choice is too difficult, suggest a specific activity and they could answer “yes” or ‘no.”
Sometimes you may have to use visual supports to further explain or demonstrate what is being conveyed. Visual supports can be any type of item or action that helps the person with Autism see what is being explained to them. Examples of these include pictures, charts, diagrams, gestures, modeling, and physical demonstration. If a picture is worth 1,000 words to a typical person, it is worth 10,000 words to a person with Autism. Conversely, if a person with an ASC is having difficulty explaining what they mean, instead of trying to have them say it differently or guessing at what they meant, have them draw or act out what they are trying to convey. Even with the visual supports there will still be times when there is uncertainty over what has been stated or received. While most of us may ask for clarification when we are unsure of a message, many people with Autism typically ask very few questions. They may simply guess at the meaning rather than asking “What did you mean by that?” Therefore, it important to make sure the person with Autism knows your intention. If most people with Autism are asked if they understood what was just said, they will be honest enough to report if they did not understand. For those who are less willing to admit this, it will not offend the person if they are asked what they believed the message meant. Also, person with Autism’s message may not always be clear, especially if they are using any type of jargon or slang.
As always, I welcome and comments or questions.
Steven C. Altabet, Ph.D.