- What is Communication?
Communication is the verbal and non-verbal interaction between two or more individuals by which information is exchanged or transmitted. And it is not always easy. On the contrary, it can be very difficult. But without communication, no one would say anything to anybody, nobody would write anything for anyone to read, relationships would simply not exist. So for all the challenges of communication, it is a proven fact that without it, we would be truly lost.
- Communication and Autism
For autistic people, communication can indeed be quite challenging. For many people who are on the autistic spectrum are unable to verbally communicate as most others are. To help with this, they employ the use of sophisticated devices, which speak for them based on general questions and statements they may encounter every day. For everyone else who communicates verbally, there are several tips and strategies to use to insure your message is not only conveyed, but is also understood.
- Eye Contact
Not everyone can do this and that’s all right, but one of the most basic facets of communication is eye contact. Even in the initial meeting of someone, if you can look them straight in the eye just once, it shows them you’re truly trying to form a relationship/have a conversation. Even if you can’t hold the eye contact for long, that’s really not a problem. Look at their forehead, or pick a point on a nearby wall and look at that. As long as you’re looking in their general direction, and occasionally make the eye contact during the course of the conversation, it will go better. And chances are, whoever you’re talking to will not hold eye contact for the entire talk either.
- Putting Words to Expectations
One important part of putting words to expectations is not assuming anything. Do not assume whoever you’re conveying your expectation to is completely and 100% on the same page as you, or vice versa. If you don’t understand something, do not hesitate to ask for clarification. No one will mind, and it shows you’re doing to your best to pay attention. Autistic people often need things explained to them several times before they truly understand — This is natural, so don’t be ashamed if you don’t get it right away. Write it down if you need to.
- Interests & Topics
It’s fairly typical that many autistic people have one or two very specific interests; things they like or enjoy very much and are skilled at. Because of this, in conversation and other social situations, they will often make mention of their particular interests even if they have nothing or very little to do with the subject currently being discussed. As a result of this potentially awkward interaction, some autistic people will elect not to speak at all or very little because they feel they have nothing to contribute to the conversation. Or, conversely, they may speak a great deal without allowing anyone else to get a word in edgewise. The balance can very difficult to locate, but it is possible.
The first thing you need to take note of is: what is everyone else talking about? It is not only potentially awkward, but also socially bad form to interrupt a conversation and begin interjecting your opinions and topics with no prior warning. Listen, and gauge the conversation until you can find an “entry point.” If none presents itself, do try and interact with others even if the topic at hand does not particularly interest you. Ask general questions, or attempt to find a suitable segue to shift the topic toward one you feel comfortable discussing. Just make sure you keep it long enough to be interesting but brief enough so you don’t completely dominate the conversation. Your opinions matter, but so does everyone else’s. Once you have your say, let them have theirs. This is especially important in a relationship where communication is a give-and-take. If nothing is given/taken, both parties will no longer wish to converse with one another.
On the other hand, it’s possible that some autistic people may not wish to communicate at all, or are unable to. While we encourage interaction and communication in the effort to form relationships, we do not demand it. Such an expectation can be unfair and even unreasonable to some on the autistic spectrum. We must all learn to communicate and interact with others at our own pace. But it is recommended that you take steps to try and engage others in some form of communication. Don’t rush it, but don’t get left behind either. There are many amazing pieces of technology out there for people who are unable to verbally communicate. These devices can allow many autistic people to interact with friends, colleagues, and peers in ways that are just as efficient (if not more-so) as verbal communication.
On Being Understood
Conflicts abound when we are not understood in daily interaction. When we say or do something that is interpreted as something else entirely by another, very little is accomplished. That is why it’s important to not only comprehend what is being said or done, but to truly understand it. And several factors contribute to this. Tone, volume, facial cues and body language, even preconceived notions on the part of one or more parties involved.
Tone matters in conversational interaction. No matter what the situation or whomever you’re talking to — striking the proper tone will help immensely. If your tone is flat and boring, no one will want to listen to you, but if it’s overly excited/boisterous, you’ll have a difficult time getting anyone to take you seriously. Of course it can also depend on your situation. Obviously, you don’t want to sound depressed and sad in a humorous environment, or vice versa. If in the course of a conversation, you become angry or agitated, it’s important to realize, especially in or when attempting to form a relationship, to not allow your frustration or anxiety to dominate the situation. It’s all right if you happen to become agitated, just try to keep a cool head about you to resolve whatever the issue is before it becomes enflamed. Again, tonal control is important.
Volume or how loud or soft your voice is, is also something to keep aware of. Going hand-in-hand with this is your environment. If you happen to be a public place with many people, keeping a lower, civilized volume of voice about you is acceptable. If the room happens to be filled with many people all talking over each other, it may become necessary to speak louder. Volume also implies how much “authority” you wish to display in any situation. In a scenario where you must issue or expectations, a louder, and perhaps more confidant approach would be recommended. Speaking with a quiet voice in a situation that requires a firmer approach is impractical. A prime example of this would be attempting to manage small children. They are taught from early ages to listen intently to authority figures. You do not have to be overly strict or demanding with them, just keep them reminded that of what is acceptable by communicating it in a firm but encouraging manner.
- Body Language
Facial expressions and body language help people to really understand the nature of your message and your mood. When we interact with others, we unconsciously move our bodies in such a way as to imply the meaning of our message. If we’re happy we tend to make grand gestures and smile a lot. If we’re upset we tend to frown or keep a neutral expression while slouching somewhat. And if we’re nervous we tend to fidget. All these actions are clues to how someone is feeling. The issue that many people with autism have is not being aware when concepts like sarcasm are being used. When someone is kidding or joking, there is usually joviality about him or her that one is able to spot: a wide grin, or perhaps a wink. Keep a look out for cues that may suggest whether someone is being serious or not. And if all else fails, ask. It never hurts to make sure.
One other thing that matters a great deal in communication and has the potential to lead to misunderstandings and conflicts are our preconceived notions about things, and indeed about people. Autistic people tend to make very fast judgments about others they may encounter based on appearance, attitude, habits, and/or behavior. For most neurotypicals, the impressions formed about strangers tend to change over time once they get to know the people they’ve met. It may take considerably longer for people with autism as it sometimes very difficult to part with that initial conclusion. But observe and try to look beyond the exterior to discover who someone is underneath. This is a baseline for forming relationships.
- We must also all be aware of the perceptions we hold about the world in general. When something doesn’t fit with our supposed comprehension, we tend to argue the point. Debates are all fine and good of course, but people with autism usually live with very precise notions that are comfortable when they do not change. When those notions are challenged or called into question, confusion, apprehension, and sometimes frustration can occur. It’s important to keep cool heads and behave rationally. Discuss your issues calmly and fairly. It is likely you will reach a suitable solution for all involved.
Communication is more than just words. It is intent, actions, perception, and most importantly understanding. Autism indeed has a notable effect on how communication between two or more people works. Some people with autism are unable to verbally communicate, but with the use of audio devices that are used in lieu of speaking, it becomes possible. For those who are able to communicate verbally but are either too shy or too embarrassed to do so, we hope we’ve given you some things to think about and some strategies to employ in your future conversations with friends, colleagues, and any other people with whom you wish to form a meaningful relationship with. Relationships are perhaps as complicated as communication itself, if not more so. No one is a mind reader, so we must do all we can to make our purpose clear and our message understood so as to avoid unnecessary conflicts. The better the relationship, the easier it will be to communicate.