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Social Communication and Autism

Meeting around a table People on the autism spectrum vary enormously from each other but they all have impaired social communication skills of one kind or another.

Those social communication skills include verbal skills (such as speaking and listening) and non-verbal skills (such as making eye contact).

For example, some autistic people

  • Are unwilling to make direct eye contact with other people
  • Use limited or exaggerated facial expressions
  • Cannot speak, can only use a few words or learn to speak very late
  • Speak using unusual volume, pitch, intonation, rate, or rhythm
  • Use odd language or repeat the same things over and over again
  • Find it difficult to hold a two-way conversation i.e. where each person speaks and then listens to the other person
  • Find it difficult to explain how they feel using words, expressions, tone of voice, and gestures
  • Use inappropriate body postures e.g. they may face away from a listener when talking to them
  • Find it difficult to recognize or interpret other people's non-verbal expressions
  • Find it difficult to coordinate their own verbal and non-verbal communication e.g. they be unable to coordinate their body language with their words

However some people on the autism spectrum claim that, rather than having poor communication skills, they have different communication skills and that people without autism need to learn how to communicate using those skills.

Personal Accounts

Temple Grandin

'I can remember the frustration of not being able to talk. I knew what I wanted to say, but I could not get the words out, so I would just scream.'

Jim Sinclair

'Understanding speech requires knowing how to process sounds, which first requires recognising sounds as things that can be processed and recognising order from chaos. ... No one guessed how much I understood, because I couldn't say what I knew. And no one guessed the critical thing I didn't know, the one missing connection that so much else depended on: I didn't communicate by talking, not because I was incapable of learning how to use language, but because I didn't know that that was what talking was for. Learning how to talk follows from knowing why to talk and until I learned that words have meanings, there was no reason to go to the bother of learning to pronounce them as sounds. I had no idea that this could be a way to exchange meaning with other minds.'

Statistics

Everybody on the autism spectrum has communication problems. However not everyone with a diagnosis of autism will have the same communication problems. Even individuals with the same form of autism may have less severe communication problems than others with the same diagnosis.

Causes

We do not yet know what causes social communication problems in people on the autism spectrum, although there are various theories.

'Although the cause of speech and language problems in autism is unknown, many experts believe that the difficulties are caused by a variety of conditions that occur either before, during, or after birth affecting brain development. This interferes with an individual's ability to interpret and interact with the world. Some scientists tie the communication problems to a "theory of mind" or impaired ability to think about thoughts or imagine another individual's state of mind. Along with this is an impaired ability to symbolize, both when trying to communicate and in play.'

(National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, 2003)

Effects

Communication problems affect each individual on the autism spectrum (and their family and careers) in a different way. For example some people on the autism spectrum

  • can become angry and frustrated because of their inability to communicate with others.
  • may face discrimination, which can in turn lead to other problems such as bullying, lack of employment

Best Practice

The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) has produced clinical guidance on the management and support of people on the autism spectrum.

This includes clinical guidance on the core features of autism, including difficulties with social communication.

Further information:

Studies and Reviews

This  section provides details of some of the most significant scientific studies and reviews of social communication in people on the autism spectrum. 

You may be able to find more studies and reviews of social communication in our publications database

If you know of any other studies we should include please email info@researchautism.net with the details. Thank you.

Please note that we are unable to supply publications unless we are listed as the publisher. However, if you are a UK resident you may be able to obtain them from your local public library, your college library or direct from the publisher.

Related Studies and Reviews


Other Reading

This section provides details of other publications on social communication, autism and related issues.

You can find other publications on social communication in our publications database.

If you know of any other publications we should include please email info@researchautism.net with the details. Thank you.

Please note that we are unable to supply publications unless we are listed as the publisher. However, if you are a UK resident you may be able to obtain them from your local public library, your college library or direct from the publisher.


Related Other Reading


Updated
01 Nov 2017