Autistic communication & interaction styles

DIVERSITY IN 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
A pyramid shape of the Speech and Language communication pyramid with speech sounds at the top
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:

  • Situational 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

  • Longer conversational turns

  • 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 which is stigmatising and inaccurate:

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

Gestalt Language Processing​

From Ausome Speech: "Gestalt Language Processing is a form of language development that moves from whole, memorized phrases to single words. It’s estimated that between 75-90% of Autistic children develop language through NLA. (Prizant & Rydell, 1984; Blanc 2012). These scripts or Gestalts come from movies, videos, and things overheard and memorized. A style of language development with predictable stages that begins with production of multi-word “gestalt forms” and ends with production of novel utterances. (ASHA 2021)".

Gestalt Language Processors learn language using longer phrases first then break them down into single words combining. Natural language development that starts with ‘gestalts’ (units of meaning of any size), breaks down smaller ‘mitigated gestalts’ (mitigations / chunks), breaks down again into single words, then builds into phrases, then sentences. The Natural Language Acquisition Pathway (Blanc 2012) has 4 main stages:

Stage 1 - Echolalia: Strings of language repeated from communication partners, songs, media. Can be short or long. 

Stage 2 - Mitigated: Strings of language that are mixed and matched. Freeing part of something and using it in different ways. 

Stage 3 - Isolation of single words: Language that is more in context. Gestalt are being broken down.

Stage 4+ - Self-generated language: Language that's in context and looks like grammar (even if it's not perfect grammar). Starts off simple then increases in complexity. 


Pragmatic functions of gestalts:

 
  • Requesting

  • Protesting / refusing

  • Yes/no

  • Commenting

  • Greeting

  • Social turn taking

  • Asking questions

  • Describing

  • Directing

  • Gaining attention

  • Answering questions

  • Labelling

  • Expressing feelings

  • Self-regulation

Black and white photo of a young boy with his mouth open wide speaking or shouting into a microphone

Preference for 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.

Direct Communicators 

Autistic people say what they mean, and mean what they say. We tend to avoid flowery language as it requires cognitive, emotional, and sensory labour. But this is often perceived as 'rude'. We get to the point and place less value on saying things in a certain way for the sake of social politeness. 

Differences in body language

Sensory processing differences mean that the Autistic person may need to move more, slouch, lean in, or use exaggerated gestures. This impacts how people perceive Autistic people in an interaction. Sometimes the Autistic person may need to seek proximity in order to feel grounded in their body, or, in order to pay more attention to what the person is saying they may need to come close and stare at the person to focus, because they're trying to filter out sensory stimuli.