Every person with autism is different and unique. What one person with autism struggles with, another can excel at. Being able to talk to others, is one area where most people with autism have difficulties with, for a number of different reasons.
Non Verbal or Speaking a Few Words
Many people with severe autism cannot use any words to communicate to others. They have to use sign language instead like Makaton. Then there are autistic people that can use a few words to get their basic needs understood like needing food, drink and sleep and use sign language for other needs.
I have worked with a number of students like this and by being very patient, concentrating really hard, giving each person a long time period to speak and by listening carefully I can understand more words than most people, which helps build up a good relationship. But I have witnessed, on a number of occasions, when communication is a trigger for a meltdown such as crying or challenging aggressive behaviour (depending on each person). Mainly due to the frustration of wanting to say something but not being able to find the words, or having the confidence to speak up. Perhaps things are building up inside for a while but as other people cannot see this an outburst will often seem to be instantaneous and without reason.
Quiet and Shy
For most of my life, and in some ways even today, I am a quiet and shy person because of my autism. As a child and young adult I hardly talked at all. Not even to the two people I was closest to growing up which was my sister and cousin. I often wanted to talk but just could not or did not know what to talk about.
I was shy and quiet around everyone apart from my parents. I would see some of my family every day, such as my aunty and uncle as I played with my cousin. But all I ever said was “hello” or “is Mark coming to play?” I was nervous when I knocked on the door and always avoided them to avoid conversations, even though I liked them both very much. The same was true for my other best friend’s parents and their family in my late teenage years. I spent almost every night sitting with the whole family in their front room watching TV. They were really kind and caring but no matter how much I liked them or how much I wanted to talk to them I couldn’t. I wanted to try more at this age but realised that if I tried to talk, as I had not had any practise in life, I would make a mistake and feel ashamed or embarrassed. So I sat there in silence. It was strange but everyone still liked me. Same with school friends, I had a few but never talked to them much, but we were still quite close.
I still struggle with talking to people today and always will. I’m glad I know why now (because I’m autistic) but it does not solve the problem. I still sit in silence at Christmas, New Years and other family gatherings. I can talk and reply when I’m spoken to but can’t have a conversation much. I do feel very awkward, but people know me really well now and most people accept me for who I am.
The one place where I am getting the most practise at talking to other people is at work. I have many conversations each day, with students and colleagues, and while I’m still a long way off being a good communicator I am improving over the years and this is starting to improve my communication outside of work as well.
Talking to Much
Some people with autism talk too much and don’t know when to stop. I have worked with many students like this. They often talk about their special interests such as planes or trains and annoy other people as they talk about these topics too much. Those that have learnt to stop talking about their special interests will often be good at having conversations but will not like being interrupted, or the conversation topic changing so will steer the conversation back to the original topic or to something that interests them. Although I do not talk much, when I do I have similar difficulties.
I have met a couple of autistic people that will often lie. I am the opposite and can never lie. In my opinion, they do not do this maliciously, but it’s a way they try to fit in with their friends and gain acceptance by saying the things they want to hear. They will often get caught out though so it has the opposite effect to their wishes.
My Progress with Verbal Communication
I have come an extremely long way from when I left school until now in my mid 30s, a very long way. I had a breakdown at the age of 20 and knew things needed to change. I was clever but couldn’t understand words, how to put words in the right order or how to talk properly. So I changed.
I forced myself to read books and newspapers everyday and have kept this up for 15 years. It was hard at first, as I more or less stopped reading when I left primary school at the age of 11, but I persevered. I feel that by doing this it has helped me talk to people by understanding language and word meanings much more.
I also forced myself to stop using the same phrases or combination of words when talking to people such as “what’s for dinner” or “can I have a drink” and started to use thought out language. For the first few years I always had to think of exactly what I wanted to say before speaking and always made a mistake (which upset and frustrated me a great deal) but I kept trying. I got to the stage where I would only make mistakes when I was very tired and now I hardly ever get words wrong. If I am very tired I not communicate at all, but this is rare now.
I would often pronounce words and sounds completely wrong and had to use a pronunciation book to show me how to pronounce sounds like “r” and “th” which had detailed pictures to show me where to place my tongue, shape my lips and many other tips. I was doing it all wrong. Such as making the “r” sound by placing my top lip behind my bottom front teeth. I have only learnt how to pronounce the long “o” sound this week after years of trouble saying names like Joe and giving spellings to students with the letter ‘o’.
Additionally, in my early 20s I went to university and learnt how to read and write at a much higher level over the six years I was there. I worked exceptionally hard and was totally committed and dedicated to learning and doing my best.
I met my wife just before starting university and we would often have long conversations which also helped me to improve my ability to talk to other people by practising all the time.
After university I chose a career path where I have to talk all the time (lecturing and a learning support assistant) which forced me to practise talking. Now I can:
- Talk without thinking about what I am going to say first.
- Explain incidents that have happened (which even when I started lecturing I found extremely difficult to do and was anxious when I did it)
- Can have a reasonable general conversation with others on a one to one basis.
So over many years I have got much better at talking to other people. It has been a very long and tough battle, and I am still learning all the time, but I am always improving.
How to improve at talking to others
If I could give any advice, to someone who has had the same or similar issues to me, it would be to try to talk. Even if it is just a little bit with people you can trust. Try to not care (and not give yourself a hard time) if you make mistakes, which you probably will do to start with. Let others help you. If someone asks you to repeat yourself as they have not understood, it is a good thing. If you are like me you will probably be very annoyed if you have to say the same thing again or have to rephrase what you want to say, as it is so hard to talk in the first place. But at least the other person is trying to understand you and not just nodding through the conversation, which can only help you in the long run.
If other people are struggling to understand what you are saying it may be due to the way in which you pronounce words and sounds. If it is and you start to learn how to pronounce sounds correctly it takes a great deal of time and patience. Initially it would take me at least a year to learn each sound correctly and over that time I would be very frustrated, confused and it often hindered conversations, as I would naturally want to use the old way of speaking sounds whilst forcing myself to use the correct way, but it is worth the battle in the long run.
If another person is changing the topic, try to let them. It frustrates me so much when this happens as I often want to know a lot more about the first thing, and will probably never find out what I want to know, but you have got to let it happen. If you manage this the other person will enjoy the conversation much more and will want to talk to you again. When I am having a conversation I try to tell people a bit about myself (but am cautious now that I don’t tell them too much which I am often tempted to do). Also try and let the conversation be about them more than yourself as most people enjoy talking about themselves and want other people to find out things about them. I usually enjoy conversations now and they are absolutely necessary to find out about things that you need to know such as at work, school or with family.
I am sure that there are also autistic people that do not have verbal communication difficulties but struggle, perhaps much more than others, with other difficulties that autism causes. For me I am reasonably happy with the way I am for now. I am quite happy with the progress I have made at being able to have conversations with others, over my adulthood but know I could be better. It is one of the biggest areas that having an official diagnosis has helped me with as I now have a greater understanding of why I have struggled with this my whole life. But of course being able to communicate is just one of the areas that autism affects and if I was an expert at this I would still struggle to talk to people due to other factors such as:
- My social awkwardness
- Not being able to understanding facial expressions
- Only being able to have a conversation with two people
- Having difficulty with eye contact
- Saying the wrong thing
- Being too honest and trueful so that it hurts the other person’s feelings.
But all this will not stop me trying to improve and fit into society the best I can in order to succeed in other areas of my life and to improve my confidence and self esteem.