How Challenges with Language and Communication Affect Autistic People

Language and communication issues are core symptoms of autism. But while people with "Level 1" (higher functioning) autism may have a tough time with idioms and social conversation, people with more severe challenges may have no speech at all. Meanwhile, people with moderately severe autism may have odd speech patterns and other language-related problems.  Not only can language and communication issues make conversation difficult - they can also interfere with school, friendships and basic life skills

Autism Symptoms Related to Social Communication

Words superimposed on photo of toddler
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The symptoms of autism are often most obvious in social situations. Even for verbal people with autism, choosing and using the right words and body language can be very difficult indeed.  It's not unusual for people with Asperger syndrome or high-functioning autism to find themselves frustrated when they misunderstand others or are misunderstood themselves.  Often, communications problems relate as much to non-verbal communication (body language) as to spoken words.

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Pragmatic Speech and Autism

Megaphone Too Loud
Megaphone Too Loud. Getty

Pragmatic speech issues relate to the practical use of language in a real-world setting.  Sure, a person with autism may have a large vocabulary, but all too often people on the spectrum use their words in ways that make little sense to others.  Even worse, slightly "off" use or understanding of idioms and slang can lead to bullying and teasing.  It's possible to teach speech pragmatics, but it's a complicated subject: every situation calls for a slightly different use of vocabulary, intonation and body language.

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Echolalia: Repeating Words and Phrases

mom and son argue
mom and son argue. mom and son argue

If you're the parent of a verbal child diagnosed with autism, you may have heard your child repeat bits and pieces from videos or other sources. This type of communication is called "echolalia." It's a unique form of speech - and though it's thought of as a "symptom," it can also be a great place to start working with your child. It can be difficult for others, though, to understand that echolalia is not intended as a form of bad behavior: when a child with autism repeats anothers' words, they're not mocking anyone, they're simply trying their best to communicate!

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Autistic Speech and Prosody

Spoken language involves more than use of words; we vary our pitch, loudness, tempo, and rhythm in speech in order to convey different meanings. These changes are called "prosody," and people with autism often find prosody difficult to hear, understand, or reproduce. What this means is that even people with very high functioning autism or Asperger syndrome may not truly understand what is being said, or may say things in such a way that they are misunderstood.

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Non-Verbal Autism

picture card
picture card. Erik Dreyer

About 25% of people diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder could be considered to have nonverbal autism -- yet the term "nonverbal autism" is not a part of the diagnostic criteria. In part, that's because there is no clear line between verbal and non-verbal individuals with autism. Some people have the ability to speak, but lack the ability to use language in a meaningful way. Others can't use spoken language, but are able to communicate with written or typed language, American sign language, picture cards, or digital communication devices.

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Late Speech and Autism

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Many people with autism develop spoken language much later than their typically developing peers. Interestingly, though, late development of speech is NOT a major predictor of outcomes. Some children who don't say a word until they're three or four develop significant language skills and are able to do quite well in school and beyond.

How to Improve Communication Skills

While everyone with autism has his or her own communication issues, everyone with autism ALSO has the ability to improve communication skills. While speech and social skills therapies are very important tools for progress, so, too, are ordinary daily experiences with adults and peers. Parents, in particular, can make a very positive difference by using and teaching active back-and-forth communication. There's no absolute limit to how far any individual on the spectrum can progress with the right support and motivation!

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