Communication, the act of transferring information, can be done verbally, through writing, or by using non-verbal signals, such as facial expressions or tone of voice. The majority of what we communicate is done non-verbally. One of the particular characteristics of autism relates to communication. Some autistic individuals may have an extremely advanced vocabulary and may possess extensive knowledge in a particular field of expertise which they are keen to share with others. However, they may have difficulty interpreting verbal or non-verbal communication of others, understanding what other people are thinking or feeling, communicating their own thoughts or feelings or joining in a group discussion.
Some of the issues individuals with autism experience around the topic of communication include:
Interpreting things literally
People with AS may interpret communication in a very literal way and could find irony, figures of speech or hypothetical questions difficult to understand. They tend to interpret instructions rigidly and also expect that what they are being told is true. In a professional environment, this may mean that they do not challenge project timelines or statements made, and may not realise when people are making fun.
Interpreting non-verbal communication
People with AS may have difficulty interpreting non-verbal communication such as body language, facial expressions or tone of voice. They may misinterpret a smile as someone laughing at them, or may equate a loud tone of voice with anger. Some people may not realise when a conversation is over or if the other person is no longer interested in the topic.
Interpreting vague instructions/unclear speech
People with AS may feel uneasy if instructions are vague as they are not certain of what is expected of them. Also, due to a literal way of thinking, figures of speech such as ‘there are plenty more fish in the sea’ can be particularly difficult to understand.
Being specific/talking too much
People with AS may have difficulty being specific or finding the right words to describe what they are thinking or feeling. They may also speak in highly technical terms or in a pedantic manner which may be difficult for others to understand. If talking about their topic of interest they may not know when it is appropriate to stop or may interrupt others.
Not talking enough
When in larger groups, some people with AS may say very little or nothing at all. They may not know when it is their turn to speak or may be anxious that what they wish to say may not be correct. This may prevent them from asking questions in a meeting or requesting help from colleagues when needed.
Communication style / honesty
People with AS may have a very matter-of-fact and direct communication style and are renowned for their honesty. They tend to state the facts as they see them, without emotion and regardless of the situation or person involved.
Tone of voice
Some people with AS may speak in a monotonous tone. Although this is normal for them, this may come across to others as rather strange. Other people may speak in a very loud voice and may not realise that they are doing so.
Due to difficulties processing information, or sensory issues, if there is a great deal of background noise, some people with AS may lose eye contact in order to focus on a conversation.
Be clear and precise
Instructions (including expectations) should be clearly communicated. Do not assume that the other person has understood what you are saying or is aware of all the implications of a particular task. Ideally, explain instructions in terms that can be visualized and follow-up verbal instructions with written ones. Also, avoid ambiguous, sarcastic, ironic or any other forms of unclear speech. Vague terms such as 'as soon as possible' do not provide the clarity the person requires in order to complete the task as expected.
Avoid non-verbal communication
Explain what you are thinking or feeling rather than relying on non-verbal signals as a form of communication. Do not expect the person to understand your thoughts and emotions from your body language or tone of voice.
Provide/ask for feedback
As with all employees, reassure a person with AS that they are doing things correctly and provide regular feedback on their performance, including behavioural issues. Also, ask the person to confirm if they have understood roles and responsibilities and if they have any issues or concerns. Do not assume that if you do not hear anything, that everything is clear and OK.
When giving instructions, give the person enough time to process what you are communicating before expecting a response. Also, leave sufficient time between giving instruction and expecting implementation as the person may need time to process the information and to prepare for the new situation. Finally, be prepared to repeat things to be certain that instructions, and expectations, have been understood.