A distinctive feature of autism is the different and various ways we communicate. Whether it’s through speech, AAC devices, behavior, or some combination, we all communicate and we all deserve to be heard.
You could write a book on autistic communication. An endeavor I lack the skills, academic training, or masochistic desire to attempt. So, for the sake of simplicity, let’s focus on how parents, caregivers, teachers, and therapists can more efficiently communicate with us.
Meet Us Where We’re At
Please don’t force us to communicate the way you want. Navigating through the world while autistic is like living in a foreign country and only having a working knowledge of the language and cultural customs. For us, even simple acts of communication are tough mental exercises.
Learning Your Language
There’s nothing inherently wrong with teaching autistic children verbal communication. However, instruction should be done in a way that while challenging, isn’t wholly uncomfortable. Remember, autistics will often shutdown or meltdown when overly stressed.
Learning Our Language
Behavior is a form of communication. Even verbal autistics will lose access to our words during times of acute distress and prolonged burnout. Behavior is a substitute for an inability to process and articulate our thoughts and emotions.
For example: a meltdown is a loud, involuntary way of us saying we are completely overwhelmed, dysregulated, and are unable to process any sensory input at the moment.
Taking people at face value is the default for many autistics. We’re listening to what you tell us. We’re watching what you show us, and are operating off that information, the stated things, not the implied.
Let’s say you ask your child to take out the trash. They comply, taking the trash, and only the trash out. You then get frustrated because you meant take the trash out, fill the dog’s water dish, and clean out the sink. But you didn’t communicate this, you only said “take out the trash.”
I call this Iceberg Speech because the clearly stated bits are at the top, above the surface, while the larger implications are below.
Some adolescent and adult autistics have the Executive Functioning skills pick up on implied communication through trial and error. Many don’t, and autistic children haven’t accumulate the requisite life experience to effectively translate Neurotypical to Autistic.
When speaking, try to fully articulate your thoughts, whether or not the person you’re speaking to is autistic.
Defiance Is Self-Advocacy
Every parent wants their child to be able to stand up for themselves. Well, certain behaviors that usually get defined as “non-compliance” or “defiance” are forms of self-advocacy.
An autistic child refusing to eat a certain food, then melting down when pressed is likely communicating some sort of sensory issue. They are trying to tell you something they can’t articulate.
We’re Not So Different
This might sound like a lot, because it is. Every autistic person communicates differently. Just like every non-autistic person does. While we’re trying to learn your language, we need you to try and learn ours.