Communication is about the sending and receiving of a message between two or more people. Young people on the autism spectrum can have a range of communication difficulties. Some develop good language skills but may have subtle difficulties such as understanding jokes, irony, metaphors and sarcasm. These young people may be good at giving information about topics of interest to them but may struggle to participate in reciprocal conversations where they need to follow rules about turn taking, listening and responding to other people. Others on the spectrum will have more significant communication difficulties, limiting their ability to communicate about their needs, wants and feelings. They may have significant receptive language (comprehension) difficulties as well, making it challenging for them to understand what is expected of them or what they need to do. Many young people on the autism spectrum will also have difficulty using and understanding non-verbal elements of communication such as eye contact and gesture. Finally, echolalia is a common feature of communication for young people on the spectrum, especially when they are developing language (for more information see the echolalia fact sheet)

How are communication difficulties a barrier to accessing the curriculum?

Communication difficulties, no matter how mild or severe, can impact enormously on functioning in the classroom and on the ability to access the curriculum generally. Some of the areas that may be impacted include:

  • understanding group instructions
  • working in groups and participating in discussions with peers and teachers
  • knowing how to stay on topic
  • understanding which instructions are relevant and which to prioritise
  • comprehension of spoken information and written information
  • understanding what is read
  • understanding non-verbal messages from teachers and peers
  • the need for longer processing time for verbal information

Here are some common questions about communication:

My child is not talking – what should I do?

All people communicate in their own way but for many young people on the autism spectrum, speech is delayed or absent. This means we need to encourage communication in whatever form they can currently use (leading, pointing, vocalisations, pictures, signing), while always seeking to develop skills at the next level to give the young person the best chance at developing meaningful speech. Support from a speech pathologist might be useful in considering how an individual is communicating now and the use of different strategies to encourage communication.

Should you use sign language? What other communication can be used?

Even though most people on the autism spectrum are not deaf and can hear, it has been found that using signs (from deaf sign language) and speaking at the same time may help people on the spectrum to understand language and to communicate. Key Word Sign (also known as Makaton) uses manual signs used by the Deaf community along with speech to support communication. Signs and speech are always used at the same time and only the main words in a sentence are signed.

Using Key Word Sign may be a useful option for some young people on the autism spectrum, in conjunction with speech and other strategies including visual supports. Sign language interventions such as Key Word Sign will not slow or stop the development of speech.  Young people who are more likely to find signing useful, generally have good fine motor and imitation skills.

There are many other types of communication that can be useful for young people on the spectrum. Another common option is Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS), which teaches them to exchange pictures with adults to communicate and using high tech communication devices that speak messages when certain pictures or words are selected or typed.

How can I get my student to follow directions when I ask him to do something?

Difficulties understanding and following directions are common in young people on the autism spectrum, but there can be many reasons for these problems. It is important to start by really looking at what they are able to understand (also known as receptive language). Many young people on the autism spectrum have significant problems with understanding language, but the problems may not be recognised because they use other cues in the environment to understand what is being said (e.g. watching what other children are doing). To maximise a person’s understanding, try the following:

  • always get their attention by getting down to their level where possible and saying their name 
  • keep the instruction as simple as possible and break down long instructions into single steps
  • remember that a simple instruction, such as ‘clean the classroom’ can have multiple elements (e.g. pick up rubbish, put away books, tidy your desk), that a young person on the autism spectrum can have difficulty breaking down and organising themselves to complete this kind of task
  • allow extra processing time – it could take a few extra seconds to several minutes for a young person to process and then act on an instruction
  • be careful about repeating an instruction too soon
  • use visual supports wherever possible

I tell my child we are going somewhere but when we get there he gets upset.  It seems like he forgets what I have said.  Is there something I can do?

There are several reasons why a young person might react in this way. Consider the following:

  • they may not have understood the message in the first place – receptive language difficulties are very common in young people on the autism spectrum
  • speech is transient - even those who are good at remembering some things may find it very hard to understand and remember verbal information
  • many young people will have a strong idea of what a routine should be, so if every Saturday morning they get in the car to go to soccer, this may be what they expect, even if they’ve been told that soccer is cancelled because of the rain

Using a visual support makes speech permanent – they can keep checking what is happening and be reassured about where they are going, what is happening next and what will happen once they are there. A young person might benefit from a single picture to hold throughout the journey or might like a sequence showing what is happening now, next and later. Others might benefit from written information rather than pictures.

My student interprets language really literally. What should I do?

Interpreting language literally is common among people on the autism spectrum and this can result in confusion and anxiety. You and those working with young people on the spectrum should be aware of your language and keep it free of sarcasm, idioms and other non-literal language wherever possible, particularly during times of stress. It is also possible to teach young people on the spectrum about figurative language and there are many books and websites are available to support this.