Approaches to Improve Communication
Communication – an essential ability in all stages of life, necessary for addressing concerns, meeting goals, and otherwise pursuing success and happiness. Unfortunately, many individuals on the autism spectrum struggle to communicate with others. Stress, unfamiliarity with social conventions or an inability to share ideas verbally can dissuade someone with autism from conversing, with the result being social isolation, lost opportunity or the persistence of dissatisfying or even dangerous circumstances. In light of this challenge, speech-language pathologists, behavior analysts and other professionals have developed many methods of promoting effective communication in individuals with ASD.
The first step in improving communication skills is identification of areas of difficulty. Communication is a dynamic convention, with a conversation between adults sounding very different from children’s chatter, so the “red flags” of communication deficits vary according to age. A speech-language pathologist (SLP), who specializes in the improvement of communication skills, can diagnose issues and provide family members or caregivers with suggestions for intervention and therapy. For information about the ASD communication assessment process, click here.
The behavioral approach to communication instruction encompasses four categories of verbal response: the mand, or request; the tact, or reaction to a sensation; the echoic, or repetition (which is useful in learning new words); and the intraverbal, or answer to a spoken question. Individuals with ASD often have difficulty with one or more of these categories – for example, a child may know what ice cream is and be able to describe it, but not know how to ask for it. With instruction, however, he/she can learn to communicate spontaneously and effectively. Click here for an overview of the behavioral approach to language instruction.
Because children rely on others to provide them with things they want and need, the mand is an especially significant communication skill from an early age. Children with ASD sometimes have difficulty asking questions (What? When? Who? Where?), and as a result express desires through ineffective and/or inappropriate means. In a public environment, such as a classroom, this can have negative social consequences for the child; therefore, it is imperative that parents and educators instruct and encourage the use of “wh-” questions in students with ASD. Click here to read about how to support children in asking "wh-" questions.
As the individual with ASD grows up, he/she will be prompted more often to participate in conversation – that is, lengthier communication between two or more people. Being able to hold a conversation is an important social skill, but a difficult one for many people with ASD because it requires knowledge of complicated but unspoken verbal etiquette. Click here to find information about the elements of a conversation, common pitfalls and how to foster improvement.
Many different methods have been developed to address all the issues discussed above. Because each individual on the spectrum has unique abilities and challenges, a variety of instructional techniques and therapy options are available. The Picture Exchange Communication System™ allows nonverbal individuals to “talk” with images; virtually simulated environments help reduce stress, facilitating communication; and speech therapy in natural environments brings the therapist to the client in order to remove the confines of the office and provide real-world practice.
In communication between an individual with ASD and a neurotypical individual, both parties must strive to maintain successful discourse. For insights into what a neurotypical person can do to facilitate conversation, click here. Another important aspect is the “hidden curriculum” – the dense thicket of social conventions that govern communication, which individuals with ASD often struggle to learn. Click here to learn about the hidden curriculum, the factors that influence its “rules” and how to teach it to people with ASD.
While communication can be quite a challenge for someone on the spectrum, it is a surmountable one. With adequate instruction and encouragement, the individual with ASD can achieve personal expression and enjoy others’ understanding and respect.
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