The Struggle of Communication in Autism

Those of us that know individuals affected by neuro-developmental disorders (NDs) such as autism are acutely aware of their challenges in the realm of communication. Back and forth, unscripted communication is learned through simple “peek-a-boo” like interactions between typically developing infants and caregivers. These deceptively simple interactions lay the foundation for all further social development, and mark the start of an infant’s journey toward understanding social and emotional behaviour. The ability to “dance” socially is taken from children with ASD… but it can be relearned with the proper guidance!

Why Communicate?

Communication ASDWhat is the true purpose of communication? I don’t mean the type of communication that takes place when you’re rushing out the door! Communication in our species is meant to allow us to share thoughts and feelings for a variety of purposes – to build loving relationships, collaborate, arrive at new ways of thinking, and to help one another to name but a few. Indeed, collaborative, reciprocal and flexible communication is essential for success in our society, and it isn’t going to become obsolete any time soon.

Individuals with ASD are often unable to understand the nuances of subtle social cues, making social connections challenging. In addition, processing challenges prevent them from making meaning of situations and borrowing the perspective of others. In most cases, our response to these challenges is to prompt, prompt, prompt! This can lead to both caregivers and children feeling angry, exhausted and resentful.

Do you often communicate for the purpose of “getting him to do something?” or are you really trying to connect on a deeper level?

If you’re like most parents of children with ASD (myself included formerly), the majority of our communication is about getting the job done.

Once we realize that our kids can’t easily do the “mental gymnastics” that their typical peers can, we also assume that they are incapable of learning to think in new ways. So, with the best of intentions, we set out to help them get through the day by peppering them with prompts – one after the next, day after day. (It is noteworthy that direct prompts are the cornerstone of the most widely accepted interventions for ASD, often leaving children dependent on prompts.)  Ultimately, all of this can rob parents of their ability to connect with their child, unwittingly becoming instruments whose primary focus is preventing kids from melting down out of frustration. This I know for sure – I remember it well.

Related: ASD Help – Learning the Social Dance

So, what can be done?

Much more than you can likely imagine! Addressing communication is only one small component of an RDI Program, but in the absence of an intensive intervention such as RDI, there are still many things that you can do.

Start by doing an “internal audit” of your communication style.

Do you speak differently to your ASD child than you do to other children? Do you prompt your child(ren) constantly? Is your communication largely “means to an end?” Do you assume that your child is unable to make decisions and function in simple situations?

What you observe may give you a bit of a jolt!

Next, don’t be hard on yourself if you discover that you’ve fallen into the habit of prompting left and right. This, unfortunately, is what most parents realize. Remember, before you can make a shift, you must be aware of your situation! Consider your communicative options before you speak. Is there another way to say what you would typically say? When I’m working with families, we call this tool “thinking out loud.” For example, instead of directly prompting your child to move his shoes, “notice out loud” that his shoes are in the way.  Or even better, simply point to the shoes and use a statement such as “Uh-oh, they’re in the way,” to get your point across. (Of course your child’s age and abilities must be taken into consideration.) Not only is this type of statement more pleasant to hear, it causes your child to connect the dots and think for him/herself. Don’t expect your child to catch on at first blush. Making any kind of alteration to your communication is as much a shift for you as it is your child. Important – don’t try to make any significant shifts when you’re under the gun or rushing out the door.

Try “thinking out loud” when you’re relaxed and spending time with your child. A simple statement such as “I love vanilla ice cream” may just initiate a connection with your child that will surprise you. Don’t be discouraged if your child doesn’t respond right away – experiment and be persistent. I always emphasize to parents that there’s a lot more going on in our kids’ minds than we give them credit for! A fleeting moment of emotional connection can bring great happiness. So take some time to analyze your communication, and try “thinking out loud” not just to get something done, but to connect as well. As with many aspects of life, the simplest things can bring unexpected joy, if we only take the time to slow down and smell the roses!

Can I be of service? 

The goal of my coaching is to help ASD Moms live a more empowered life, by improving their physical and emotional wellbeing. I can’t think of a better cause to get behind. Can you? Your family needs you to be the best you can be. 

Coaching provides a judgement-free, safe space for you to get your bearings, explore your needs and own your power. Power, you say? Yep! It may be hidden, but it’s there. Let’s find it together. What makes this even better? Coaching takes place by phone! For more information go here: Coaching with Sue

You can also email me at, call 705-875-4605 or send me a message here for a complementary session!



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