Autism in adults – verbal communication

Through greater awareness we are seeing more children being diagnosed with autism, and adults too are beginning to recognise the condition in themselves, sometimes following their child being diagnosed, and the recognition of shared or similar characteristics or traits.

My experience both as a counsellor and in my personal life leads me to suspect that in future years we will recognise a greater portion of the population as being neurodiverse, and whilst we have made great strides in recent years, we still have a long way to go in raising awareness of autism, and how it looks in society.

I view autism as a way of processing information and understanding the world that is different, not less than any other way. From my experience of how individuals with autism can be successful in the world, in their relationships, and the wonderful contributions they make in society, my aim has become to understand neurodiversity, accept it, and embrace it, and I encourage others to do the same.

Sadly, the portrayal of autism and associated stereotypes in the media may have contributed to the challenges faced by individuals on the autism spectrum, either through the attached stigma, or leaving those who do not ‘appear’ autistic misunderstood or unsupported. This is made more challenging by the fact that those with autism often mask their difficulties, a coping mechanism developed to help them fit in with their neurotypical counterparts that may have been practised for most of their life.

An example of this I see often in couples, where communication may be shrouded in confusion and misunderstandings, or alternatively complete avoidance, due to genuine but unrecognised difficulties with verbal communication, particularly if the partner(s) has not been diagnosed. I must stress that neither of the partners are usually at fault here, but both have often reached the point of exhaustion having tried repeatedly to improve the situation but at a complete loss to know how to.

In the same way for example, some individuals have dyslexia, we need to recognise and understand that for some individuals, verbal communication and interactions require a lot of effort, and many nuances that are part of communication such as body language and facial expressions may be missed. Added to this may be the frustration of not being able to find the right words to match their thoughts, and the misunderstandings that arise as a result. Imagine deciding what you are going to say, but when you open your mouth to speak, the words come out in a foreign language. Added to that, you have completely forgotten how to speak in your native language to rectify the misunderstanding.

In the same way we would adapt to support the individual with dyslexia, we can adapt how we communicate with individuals on the autism spectrum to increase understanding, leading to more positive interactions, and less conflict and confusion.

Every single individual with autism is different, and will have different challenges at different levels, so it would be difficult to give a one size fits all solution when it comes to communication, but here are a few ways we can support an individual who may have difficulties with verbal communication;

Learn to recognise when someone is having difficulty with verbal communication. Never put pressure on an individual to continue talking if this is difficult for them. Allow time out from the situation if necessary. Continuing is more likely to lead to a complete shutdown, running away or an aggressive display of frustration.

Allow time to respond. A delay in processing information may just mean the individual needs a moment or two longer to give the response required.

Be aware of your voice tone. However frustrated you are, a tone of voice that is hostile or angry will only ever make the situation worse. An individual on the autism spectrum may have difficulty understanding cause and effect, and a defensive response can be expected if they do not fully understand the reason for the perceived attack. Seek support from a friend, family member, colleague or counsellor to share your frustrations if you are finding things difficult.