Autistic communication: Features

COMMUNICATION METHODS 

Speech, vocalisations, words, sentences, phrases, AAC, body language, facial expressions, pointing, signing, symbols, alphabet charts, pen / paper, communication books, objects, ​electronic devices, sending pictures, memes, gifs, Makaton, BSL, braille, laughing, crying, emojis, email, texting, messaging, voice notes, body movements, music, behaviour, pointing, gesture, echolalia, stimming, text-to-speech / speech-to-text.
 
THERE ARE SO MANY WAYS TO COMMUNICATE!
Some autistic people are verbal, some are nonspeaking. Autistic people tend to be more accepting of alternative forms of communication than neurotypical groups, who typically favour speech. 
Purple and white mobile phone with two speech bubbles
A purple notepad and pen
White envelope with a purple note with a @ symbol on it
Two purple hands making a heart shape
Purple outline of a mobile phone
purple outline of two speech bubbles
The Communication Pyramid is a widely used model in SLT practice, which suggests children develop communication skills in a linear order. But this model is misleading for many reasons:
 
  • Speech sounds aren't the last stage of development; what about inference / pragmatics?
  • Skills aren't finished; they emerge and develop alongside each other
  • This model excludes neurodivergence
  • There is a lack of evidence to support it (Morgan & Dipper, 2018) 

And just like neurotypical children, autistic children may have additional communication difficulties such as:

  • Selective Mutism

  • Dysfluency 

  • Expressive or receptive difficulties

  • Apraxia / dyspraxia

  • Speech / phonological difficulties

  • Voice disorders

INFO DUMPING

  • Talking alot about a topic in great detail

  • Telling someone about a special interest

  • A way of building a connection with someone

  • Sharing extensive knowledge about a topic

  • A way to initiate an interaction

  • Overlapping speech during the conversation

  • Showing someone how much you know about a subject

  • Sharing excitement about a topic

Three children lay down on their stomachs looking at a book together in a library

Neurodivergent people who use speech love to info-dump and is a valid way of sharing information. The feeling of being so passionate about something can feel so exhilarating. To a neurotypical person this is often labelled as: poor turn-taking, social deficits, interrupting, lack of reciprocity, ignores social cues, repetitive, verbose, lack of awareness of social conventions.

It's all about perception. If we re-frame these 'deficits' and view them through a neurodiversity lens, we can acknowledge that autistic communication is just a different way of communicating.

 

ECHOLALIA

Echolalia is the repetition of sound, words, phrases. For example: repeating a phrase you've just heard, repeating a line from your favourite film, repeatedly pressing a button on a device which elicits a sound. If you search for echolalia on the internet, you'll find this (awful) definition:

"meaningless repetition of another person's spoken words as a symptom of a psychiatric disorder"
- OXFORD DICTIONARY

Functions

  • to communicate

  • to self-soothe

  • to stim

  • to process information

  • to express a feeling

  • to learn / develop language

The above definition is written from a medical model perspective. It is stigmatising and wildly inaccurate. Echolalia is much more complex. Echolalia can be immediate or delayed: 
  • Immediate: repeating something you've just heard. 

  • Delayed: repeating something minutes, hours, days, weeks later. This can seem out-of-context.

Black and white photo of a young boy with his mouth open wide speaking or shouting into a microphone
Echolalia can sometimes be an indication that the child / adult hasn't understood what they've heard. Professionals and educators can overestimate how much the person has understood because of this, for example, some autistic people are great at remembering facts and repeating them back without actually understanding the information at a deeper level.
Lots of autistic students will answer questions in class by simply repeating the last few words they've heard, but ask them to verbally reason or make inferences and it will be obvious they've not understood.

Asynchronous Communication

A white and purple drawing of a mailbox and a paper aeropane leaving the mailbox
This is a style of communicating which lots of neurodivergent people prefer - including myself. Asynchronous communication is when you send a message without expecting an immediate response. Examples: receiving an email and responding minutes, hours, days later / responding to a text later in the day / getting back to someone / waiting until you've got home from work to call someone / sending a response 2 minutes later. There are many advantages to this method but the main one is that the person has time to process the information and plan what it is they want to say. Real-time communication is often rapid and demanding. Executive functioning and language processing differences mean that for neurodivergent people responding quickly can be a huge difficulty. 

Synchronous communication (immediate responses like in a conversation) can cause significant anxiety for an autistic person because not enough time is given for them to process and plan what they want to say. It's why job interviews are incredibly difficult for autistic people because they have to think on the spot and produce responses immediately.

Building friendships

Cartoon image of a light skinned man with a brown beard and a dark skinned woman with black hair. Both people are smiling
Typically, the way neurotypicals form relationships is VERY different to how autistic people do. Autistic people do not place the same emphasis on smalltalk / arbitrary topics of conversation in order to connect. Instead, we tend to prefer connecting with others by sharing our common interests. We build our friendship through info-dumping, shared values, likes / dislikes, we skip smalltalk and much prefer discussing real, personal topics.