Autism and Learning how to Talk to Other People

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.


2 thoughts on “Autism and Learning how to Talk to Other People

  • January 18, 2021 at 2:24 am

    I was looking in to this website to see if my suspicions are correct about my teenage daughter having this condition and I have thought of a small list of things you could write about In the future.

    How can teens fit more into a secondary school environment without getting judged or bullied by others

    How can teens better cope with the issues and stresses HF autism causes in a school environment with teachers that don’t take into account that some students won’t preform as well as others due to conditions like these

    How can teens better fit into a 21st century youth environment

    How can teens better develop their language without reading books as my daughter simply refuses to do that

    Why do modern day schools not take into account issues like this when doing for example call out activities where students can’t answer not because they weren’t listening but because they can’t but an answer together fast enough

    My daughter has admitted to having almost perfect conversations with herself in her head about many different things but when it comes to having these same conversations in real life she struggles a lot in knowing what to say, why is this

    Why do friends and family still like her even when she says hardly anything most of the same and why does she think that everything she says is wrong even when it isn’t

    Why do people’s tone of voice change so much when talking to people they’re not used to talking with

    And finally, what are some good conversation starters for people with HF autism to use

    I understand that there is a lot here and that you may have written about some of this stuff already but I would appreciate it if you could possibly make a new section dedicated to autism in teens


    • January 18, 2021 at 7:35 am

      Hi Roberto

      Being a teenager with autism/Aspergers is certainly a tough time in your life. I really empathise with your daughter and all she’s going through.

      The idea of having a teenage section is brilliant and I will almost certainly put it into action in the future. I welcome any ideas for the website. I’ve got a few posts I’m working on already but could really do with good ideas like these.

      I will try to answer a few of your questions in regards to your daughter here.

      The best way to fit into the school environment is to have a couple of close friends who you’re loyal, and spend time the most time with. As a group you’re much less likely to get bullied. Teenagers are very critical of people with differences. Pulling out these differences gives them power amongst their peers. Whether it is someone being ugly, fat, tall, short, or has (in their eyes) peculiar interests. Remember even though these people seem incredibly important and seem powerful to you, at this moment in time, by the time your sixteen you are likely to never even see them again. I’m 40 and I’ve only seen (from a distance) one or two people from my school year in the past twenty years. Even though I still live locally. Perhaps they’ve changed so much I don’t recognise them. But for the time being it’s worth trying to fit in the best you can, without standing out too much. Don’t volunteer information if you don’t need to. Keep social media posts to a minimum. Plus people may single you out for things you may not even realise such as jealousy.

      It’s much easier to be your true self outside of the formal school years, when you turn 16. Here in England when your 16, you can choose what you study and quite often you end up with a class with very similar personalities to yourself and things get much easier.

      It is very hard to develop language without reading but watching films or TV programmes, or other people from afar (without being obvious of course) can help. Instead of switching off whilst doing this look at how they start conversations, the body language they use, the answers they give to questions. All of which can help you. But being mindful that a lot of autistics/aspies have favourite TV characters and often pick up their accents as their own, such as being English but using an American accent.

      It does take many autistic/aspies longer to think when it comes to answering questions. But what seems like an eternity to the person thinking, is actually a much shorter period of time to everyone who is listening. A good way around this is to use phrases such as “that’s a really good question, I just need a moment or two to think about it before I can answer?” Or “is it possible for you to come back to me so I can think about the answer for a bit longer?” If it’s a problem in a particular class it’s always worth either having a word with the teacher after lesson or sending them a polite email. Explaining that it takes a while for you to process information and come up with an answer. Explaining how it puts you in a difficult and perhaps embarrassing situation. If possible could they bear this in mind when asking you in future and give you enough time to think of a good answer.

      Hope all this helps – thanks for the brilliant comment.


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