Autism and Language

This is a topic that I have touched on in previous blog posts but I thought it deserved more attention so I am devoting a whole post to it today.

Receptive and expressive language problems are common across the entirety of the autistic spectrum. They range from being unable to vocalise any words at all to being completely verbal but taking language literally and failing to understand sarcasm. What is vitally important for people to understand is that, during times of stress, anxiety or high emotion of any kind, even the most verbal person on the spectrum can find themselves unable to vocalise coherently at all. This is something that a lot of people find hard to understand as they believe that, if someone is able to communicate verbally most of the time, they should be able to communicate at that level all of the time. They find it hard to understand that sometimes stress reduces us to levels of such extreme panic that we cannot form the words to verbalise them and the more people are expecting us to talk, the harder it becomes to verbalise anything. In these circumstances, patience is vital. Pushing somebody to talk just makes the whole situation worse even if you believe you are helping. Given time, most people will open up to the people they love and trust but it is by no means an instant thing.

As a person with Aspergers, my language problems are primarily that I take things literally. I often misunderstand instructions and only realise afterwards just how much I misunderstood what I was asked to do. I have got a lot better at asking for clarification of what people are expecting me to do and I have learned from my mistakes over the years but often I realise just how differently I perceive life to other people and how this affects how I interpret their language. I will never refuse to do anything I am asked to do (obviously within reason) but often I have to ask people to clarify. As mentioned above, I also find it very hard to communicate verbally in times of anxiety and distress. People can sometimes find this hard to believe until they witness it for themselves as, once you get to know me, you realise that I talk a lot and have a very loud voice but I find communicating very hard work when I am emotional.

One important thing to remember is that, even with people who are classified as non verbal or pre verbal, no spoken language does not equal no communication. Behaviour is a form of communication and so are individual vocalisations which relatives, friends and other familiar people get to know over the years. Everybody communicates in their own way and everybody has something to say. A key trigger for challenging behaviour in a lot of people who are pre verbal is their form of communication not being understood. Communication aids can often help in cases where people’s communication is not being understood. The world is designed for people who can communicate verbally which, in my opinion, is wrong. To me, all types of communication should be equal. There are lots of people who do not communicate verbally but type extremely eloquently and can often get their point across more nicely than some people who communicate verbally.

As a final point, please remember the individual language needs of people with autism in all its forms in your life. Try to avoid sarcasm if you know you are conversing with somebody who struggles to understand it and, if you see they have taken something in a way other than you intended, explain how you wanted them to take it nicely without patronising them. If your friend or relative does not communicate verbally, accept this as part of who they are and support them to find other methods of communication. Learn their gestures and vocalisations and understand that this is how they communicate their needs. Yes life would undoubtedly be easier for them if they could communicate verbally but, with love and support, they can find their own methods of communication which, in many cases, vastly reduces the behaviour that is caused by frustration at not being understood. Language issues are part of our lives for a lot of us on the spectrum but, with patience and encouragement, we can succeed.


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