In Autism, Speech and Communication Are Not the Same thing

Father speaking to his son
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People with autism spectrum disorders may be entirely non-verbal, they may have limited useful speech, or they may be very talkative indeed. No matter what their verbal abilities, though, almost everyone on the autism spectrum has a hard time using speech in social interactions. That's because they are coping with a double challenge: their own difficulties in expressing ideas appropriately, and others' difficulties in understanding and accepting them.

Why would a person who can use spoken language run into problems with social communication?

Social language is not the same thing as correct language. It includes body language (use of eye contact, hand gestures, body stance, etc.), pragmatic language (socially meaningful use of language), idioms, slang, and an ability to modulate tone, volume, and prosody (ups and downs of the voice). It also requires the speaker to correctly decide which type of speech is appropriate in a particular situation (polite at school, loud with friends, etc). All of these skills presuppose an understanding of complex social expectations, coupled with an ability to self-modulate based on that understanding.

People with autism generally lack those abilities.

Often, people with high functioning autism (Asperger syndrome) find themselves frustrated when their attempts to communicate are met with blank stares or even laughter.

This happens all too frequently because people with autism may have:

  • Difficulty understanding tone of voice and body language as a way of expressing sarcasm, humor, irony, etc.
  • Lack of eye contact
  • Inability to take another's perspective (to imagine oneself in someone else's shoes). This disability is often referred to as lack of "theory of mind."

Many people with autism are able to compensate for social communication deficits by learning rules and techniques for better social interaction. Often, these skills are taught through a combination of speech therapy and social skills training. The reality, however, is that many people with autism will always sound and appear slightly different from their peers.

Resources for Building Social Communication Skills


A Klin. "Social and communication abilities and disabilities in higher functioning individuals with autism spectrum disorders: the Vineland and the ADOS." J Autism Dev Disord. 2007 Apr;37(4):748-59. Epub 2006 Dec 5.

MH Charlop-Christy. "Using the picture exchange communication system (PECS) with children with autism: assessment of PECS acquisition, speech, social-communicative behavior, and problem behavior." J Appl Behav Anal. 2002 Fall;35(3):213-31.

RJ Landa. "Social and communication development in toddlers with early and later diagnosis of autism spectrum disorders." Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2007 Jul;64(7):853-64.