The communication profiles of students with Autism Spectrum Disorder can vary enormously; however, impairments in communication skills are central to the diagnosis of ASD.
Some learners may have little or no speech, while others may have lots of language but may be unable to use that language to communicate effectively.
Let’s think for a moment about the purpose of communication.
When we communicate, we are sharing attention with another person.
It is a social exchange - a give and take - where we are focused on the same things together, taking turns as listeners and as speakers.
We can talk about things that are happening right now, things that happened in the past, or things that we expect or wish to happen in the future.
We can ask for help, share information, express our feelings, or tell a joke.
It’s also important to keep in mind that we don’t always use words to communicate.
We can use gestures, facial expressions, and even our body posture to let people know what we are communicating.
All of these things can be very difficult for learners with ASD.
They may not understand that using language is useful for a range of purposes including getting what they need or want, but also maintaining relationships between people.
Individuals with ASD don’t always understand the social aspects of communication, that communication involves “give and take,” and that there are many nonverbal and social cues involved in the exchanges that make up communication.
When we are trying to support the development of communication in learners with ASD, we have to consider many different things.
Most importantly, we want our learners to understand that communication is a good thing.
It helps us get the things we want; it allows us to make friends, to enjoy activities with different people, and to learn about things that interest us or things that are important to us.
Remember I said earlier that learners with ASD don’t always understand that language can be useful.
As a starting point, it may be helpful to consider the different ways we use communication.
You may have heard people talk about receptive and expressive language.
Receptive language is about understanding what is being communicated by someone else.
Sometimes this type of communication requires the individual to make some type of response.
For example, you might ask a learner to go get the blue book.
In this case, they will need to understand what your instruction means, what a book is, and which colour is blue.
You might purchase something at the grocery store, and the cashier may say, “That will be 10 dollars, please.” In that case, you need to be able to identify the correct amount and give that to the cashier.
In each of these cases, the listener has to understand what the speaker says and means, and has to respond accordingly.
At other times, receptive communication is just about obtaining and understanding information and may not require a response.
For example, you might simply show the learner the blue book and say, “This one is blue.” In this case, you are sharing information, but you are not asking for a response.
Generally speaking, receptive language is about how we behave as a listener; it involves the “input” and the understanding of that input.
Expressive communication, on the other hand, involves “output.” It involves using words and sentences to express our needs, wants, thoughts, ideas, and opinions in ways that other people can understand.
For example, you might ask for a sandwich at a restaurant, or you might share your thoughts about last night’s hockey game with a colleague.
Expressive communication also includes the facial expressions, gestures, and other body language and non-verbal cues that we use to convey our messages.
For example, I might say that the soup I’m eating tastes great, but if I do so with a scowl on my face, my body language is sending another message that the soup doesn't taste that good.
Thinking about communication in terms of expressive and receptive language is one way to look at it.
Another valuable way to think about communication is in terms of all of the different ways that communication functions.
So let’s take a look at how a single word can be used for a variety of different purposes, or put another way, how a single word can serve a number of different communicative functions.
We will use the word, “cat” as an example.
I need to be able to say the word “cat” when someone asks me to repeat it.
I need to be able to name a cat when I see a real cat, a toy cat, or a picture of a cat.
I need to be able to use the word “cat” to respond to questions like “What animal says ‘meow’? or “What’s your favourite kind of pet?” If the teacher prints the word “cat” on the board and asks me to copy it down in my notebook, I need to be able to do that, and I need to learn to read the word “cat” when I see the letters C-A-T written somewhere.
Although all of those examples require that I use the same word, CAT, the word serves a different purpose, or functions differently, in each situation.
And in order to be an effective communicator, I need to be able to use the word for all of those functions.
When we are working with learners with ASD, we can’t assume that they can use a word for all of those different purposes simply because we have heard them use it in one situation.
As a matter of fact, we will usually need to teach each of those different functions explicitly and test to make sure the individual has mastered the use of the word for each specific function.
For many learners with ASD, some of the most valuable functions of communication that will need to be taught include making requests, labeling, imitating, and responding to questions or comments from someone else.
Let’s look a little closer at each one of those functions.
When I want or need something, I can make a request to someone for whatever it is that I want or need.
For example, if I am thirsty, I can ask for a glass of water.
If I want to find a certain book at the library, but I don’t know how to find it myself, I can ask the librarian for help.
I can ask for an object, an action, an activity, some information, or to get comfort.
I can also ask for a break, for something to stop or someone to go away.
It is important to be able to ask for things that are not present in the environment, and to know how to make requests in an appropriate way.
Knowing what to request and how to do it in the right way means that I have a way of regulating my environment.
Even protesting is a form of requesting.
When I say “no” or want something to stop or someone to go away, I’m requesting for something to change in my environment.
I’m asking someone else to behave in a certain way.
Requesting is a very important communication skill for getting our wants and needs met.
Individuals with ASD often have a difficult time with this.
Ineffective communication sometimes leads to inappropriate behaviour.
I can also use language to label or name things in the environment.
When I get excited about seeing something I might say something like, “What a cute puppy!” My comment is essentially labeling the thing or the action that I am looking at – in this case, the puppy.
You might show a learner a picture or an object and ask, “What is it?” or “What is the dog doing?” or “Where is the boy sleeping?” Your goal is to have the learner respond by naming, or labeling, the item, the action, or the location.
This is the way a student can learn different aspects of language - vocabulary, such as nouns, actions, concepts such as size, colour, shape, or words to describe people or things.
Some students with ASD have good vocabulary knowledge, but using that knowledge flexibly or connecting words to ideas can be hard for them.
Many individuals with ASD are very concrete in the way they use or interpret language.
They may have a hard time understanding more abstract or figurative language, such as expressions like “It’s raining cats and dogs,” or requests such as, “Can you give me a hand?”
So two important functions of communication involve requesting and labeling.
Another function that we may not always think about when we consider communication is imitation.
One of the ways we learn about the world and how to navigate situations effectively is by imitating what other people say and do.
For example, if I am in a new fancy restaurant and I’m not sure of the rules about which fork to use, I will watch the people around me and imitate what I see them doing.
If I don’t know how to order from the complicated menu, I will probably let someone else order first and listen to what they say.
Or if I am trying to learn to play golf, I will watch how other people swing the club several times first before I give it a try.
Being able to imitate is important for speech and language development.
Young children learn to say words and to put words together by imitating the sounds, words, and phrases that they hear the people around them say.
Imitating another person also means that I am “tuned in” to that person, or paying close attention to them, which is also important for effective communication.
Imitation is an area that is often identified very early on as being problematic for individuals with ASD.
Individuals with ASD may benefit from positive peer models when learning new skills, but usually need to be explicitly taught imitation skills for that strategy to work.
Another important function of communication is to be able to respond to someone else when what we are talking about something that is not present in the environment at that time.
We could be talking about something that happened in the past, something that may happen in the future, or just a general topic.
There is nothing in the environment that would alert the individual to how they should answer or what to say next.
For example, I might ask my friend, “Where did you go on the weekend?” or “What answer did you write for the exam question on Ancient Egypt?” We might be talking about lunch, but the lunch is not actually in front of us. I might ask, “What was in that salad you had with your sandwich? It looked great.”
With young children, we might use fill-in-the-blank songs or expressions, like “1-2-3...” or “Twinkle, twinkle little...”
Although some learners with ASD may have expressive language skills, they may need explicit teaching to be able to use what they know in situations where there is no visual cue present to help them figure out what to say.
They may be able to label a wide variety of animals when presented with pictures, but when asked, “Tell me the animals you saw at the zoo today,” they may not be able to respond if pictures are not present.
All of these functions, making requests, labeling, imitating, responding as a speaker, responding as a listener, and others have to come together for an individual to be a good communicator.
And the reality for many learners with ASD is that they may be missing many of these functions.
We might hear the learner say, “Cat” when we show them a picture of a cat or a toy cat, and we assume that they know and understand how to use the word; however, they may only be able to use the word to label, not to imitate, or to request, or to respond to a question.
We need to help make those linkages so they can communicate in a variety of ways and for a variety of purposes.
In the next video, we will share a variety of strategies you may want to consider if you are working to help individuals with ASD develop and improve their communication skills.
In this series of videos on communication, our goal is to provide some information about communication development in learners with ASD and strategies that may be helpful for individuals whose communication skills fall into three general categories: emerging communicators, developing communicators, and advanced communicators.