Fact sheet on communication issues with Autism,  the most common pervasive developmental disorder


Although the effects of autism and Asperger's syndrome on a child's communication vary greatly, there are basic communication strategies parents can use to help their child.


Keep language simple, specific and concrete

We are usually unaware of the complexity of the language we use. While children can normally make enough sense out of complex sentences, a child with autism may have little understanding of "Come on, Tom. We don't live in a tent! You have to always close doors behind you, okay?" Tom would have a much better chance of understanding "Tom, shut the door".


While this style of communication appears to lack politeness, your child will have a greater chance of understanding and your respect can be indicated by your body language and tone of voice.


Language also needs to be specific. "Tom, you shouldn't be so rude to people" will be harder to understand than "Tom, don't tell people they are fat". Another common problem is giving instructions in the form of questions. "When are you going to tidy up your room?" can be very ambiguous compared to "Clean up your room" although the former may sound more polite.


Concrete language refers to making the meaning of a sentence very plain - the words simply mean what they say. Much of our language involves sub meanings such as sarcasm, irony or 'reading between the lines' and children with autism or Asperger's consistently have trouble with anything other than a literal meaning of the words spoken. Examples of difficult phrases to understand would be:

• Great work, I'm sure that girl really enjoyed you pushing her into the mud!"

• "I wonder if people might think it's unusual if you wear just your underpants in public".


allow time for your child to respond

It may appear as though a child has not understood a question or statement, but often it just takes time to process the incoming information, up to 45 seconds in some cases. It can be frustrating and feel very abnormal, but giving your child time to respond will help them learn communication skills faster.


Repeating the question every few seconds to force a response, or constant talking, can lead to challenging behaviors as the child becomes frustrated by being overwhelmed with verbal information.


establish eye contact

A common feature of autism and Asperger's is a lack of eye contact. It is important to encourage proper eye contact. Other people are more likely to interact with your child, and it is the first step to your child learning to 'read' the facial expressions of others or follow your line of sight if you are indicating an object by looking at it.


This may involve a simple statement: "Tom, look at me", or it may also involve stepping into the child's line of vision or a gesture with the hands to indicate the child should be looking at you during conversation. An important point here is to be at your child's level. While it is often tempting to stand when talking to your child, getting down to their level increases the chance of eye contact and bonding.


keep the volume and tone of your speech moderate

While a loud angry tone of voice can be a useful part of discipline with challenging behaviors, it usually only worsens the situation for a child with Autism or Asperger's. There is frequently a heightened sensitivity to loud sounds and high pitched noises, so angry voices will often lead to challenging behaviors. There are many alternative ways to manage behaviors that don't involve raised voices. See the Behavior & life skills page for more information on behavior management.


use your child's interests to build motivation

Autism and Asperger's syndrome often result in a restricted range of interests, whether it be telephones, leaves or running water. Although a parent will not want to encourage an obsessive interest, these do provide a basis for building communication skills. Ask questions and encourage your child to talk about the things they like. As communication skills develop, you can encourage your child to talk about other things and widen their range of interests.


avoid negative words that act as triggers

Words such as 'not now', 'no' and 'stop' can act as triggers for challenging behavior in autistic children. When this happens, it is necessary to find positive statements that redirect the child's behavior. An example is a child who is playing with her toys instead of getting ready for school. Instead of saying 'No, Sarah. Stop playing with your toys', a redirection focuses on 'Let's put your clothes on for school'.


While redirection sounds very easy, it can be very difficult to focus on a positive statement when getting frustrated with your child's lack of attention or inappropriate behavior.


break instructions or long sentences into steps

A key to helping a child learn complex skills is to break them into understandable pieces. The same principle works with communication. Take the following sentence:


"Today we'll have a swim at the beach after seeing grandad for morning tea and getting some fruit at the supermarket".


A children with Asperger's syndrome or autism will have trouble understanding this mass of information, and in what order it will happen. This would be better explained in order, one-by-one, and giving the child time to digest the information in each case .Techniques such as social stories or visual cues (photos or story boards) can also be a great help.


See the Communication skills page for more information.
Click here to read the fact sheet on helping your child to make friends.


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Although communication development is affected by Autism and Asperger's  in many ways, there are basic communication strategies parents can use to help their child in minimizing delays in speech development as part of early intervention