As a professional, I work with children at different age levels with autism. In this article, I want to discuss how Matty* taught me about the English Language – literally! One of the issues that people with ASD have; that is only beginning to be understood by society in general, is language cognition. Autistic communication skills may look or sound different to the way a non ASD individual might communicate; depending on the level of Autism. Some students I have supported with autism do not understand non verbal communication, they cannot grasp what facial expressions or body language may, or may not, indicate.
English is notoriously difficult to fully comprehend among people who learn it as a second language. It is a mishmash of various other languages with words from Germany, France, Italy, Scandinavia and India, we are a mongrel nation that absorbs and puts to our own use anything and everything from elsewhere. But we have a peculiarly British way of dealing with words, which can confuse visitors – “I’m fine, thanks” does not always mean the speaker is fine, they are just being polite; or private. There are cyphers to be learnt and understood, that may even confuse English speakers themselves!
When moving about a work or learning environment, we, in England, will often say something other than ‘Hello’ in passing. If you do not have time, or you are not stopping to converse you might instead say ‘How’s things?‘ or ‘How are you?‘ or ‘You okay?’
We do not actually want to know how the other person is; God forbid we should discuss our feelings or ailments! It is, like many forms of speech, a short-cut or alternative. So, before we get into any form of conversation, we can immediately see this as an example of potential communication difficulties for the Autistic student.
Autistic communication can appear incomprehensible to a parent or educator, it is up to us to make the effort to understand and make ‘translations’ into our ‘Mother tongue’. Similarly, it is also up to us to ensure that the words we use, are what we mean!
Early on in my role as Learning Support Practitioner, I worked in a class with 2 autistic students – last month I spoke about *Justine; whose Autism hindered her ability to communicate fully. Today, meet Matty – who taught me to say what I mean.
Walking into the classroom after lunch, I found all the students at work on their individual projects – except Matty, who was simply staring out of the window.
‘What are you doing?‘ in college, when directed at a student, actually translates as – ‘Why aren’t you doing some work?‘ or ‘Come on, get on with it!‘
So I said, “What are you doing?” Matty thought for a moment and answered, “I’m looking out of the window at the clouds.” He had answered my question! He was being honest, the underlying meaning had not been understood.
Another occasion had Matty and me passing each other on the stairs. And out of my mouth came the truly English greeting, “Hi, how’re you?” whilst continuing to walk. Matty stopped. It became clear to me that he was actually considering the question, so I had to stop too! Matty did not suffer from speech delay, no, he was actually considering my words. Matty took my question at face value – he did not have the communication tools to decipher what I was saying. I was not really asking him how he was, but that’s what I said! And taken literally, Matty was quite right in his thoughtful response; “I’m good today actually.”
‘See you later.’ is another thing we say flippantly. It can be very confusing to autistic people. It does not specify a time. It does not say when this ‘later’ is; an hour? Half and hour? A day? It can mean any and all of these – it actually translates as ‘I’ll see you when I see you next.’ I learned to be precise about my speech when working with Matty, he made me aware of how careful I had to be regarding questions, time, greetings and comments in general.
So how do we interact with a child who has autism? First, be clear; do not ask rhetorical questions. Get to know the level of communication, whether verbal or non verbal of your child. Do understand that language is an extremely sophisticated tool for communication, and you will probably take yours for granted; not realising the nuances, the codes and cyphers that you express on a daily basis. Many Autistic people will take things literally, so using an idiom can cause huge confusion. When we say in England, ‘It’s raining cats and dogs.’ we mean it is raining heavily; but Matty did look out of the window when a fellow student said it.
Matty* name changed to protect identity.
Have any stories about autistic communication? Write to us!
About the author:
Alexandra Peel is a contributing writer for The School of Autism blog. She is the author of Sticks & Stones and writes the blog, Flailing Through Life. She is also a Learning Support Practitioner at an F.E/H.E College, England.
Visit Ms. Alexandra Peel’s blog.
Did reading about autistic communication get you thinking? Read more here –
- Understand and Accept Autism
- What constitutes as normal?
- Does living environment affect a child with autism?
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About the School For Autism, Hyderabad
School For Autism is based in Hyderabad and provides therapy to people with autism (including autistic communication), irrespective of age. To know more about the school, click here.
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