Unit II: Social Communication & Language across the spectrum

1. Non-Verbal Communication

2. Verbal Communication

3. Social emotional reciprocity

4. Interpersonal relationships

5. Variations across the spectrum


1.     Non-Verbal Communication

Communication is the process of transmitting information from one person to another to develop shared understanding (Velentzas & Broni, 2014). Communication can be deliberate or accidental, involving typical or irregular signs and also spoken or other forms so that meaningful exchange of information takes place. Dixon and O’Hara (2006) point out that encoding of messages occurs in more than words: Non-verbal language including posture, facial expression, inflection, and tone, have a big role to play in decoding meaning in a message. Such non-verbal language may also cause unintended meaning, especially if it occurs through non-verbal leakage. Non-verbal language is particularly important when conveying a message.

The communication skills including non-verbal and verbal language skills are critical in learning and developing social bonds. However, children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) have limited communication skills: Most of them having difficulty with communication and language, as well as social interactions (Cadette, 2015). In addition, there is a relationship between non-verbal communication skills in children with ASD and language development at later developmental stages (Ingersoll & Gergans, 2006). In fact, deficits in imitation skills, for example, are partly responsible for children with ASD having difficulty with acquisition of language through normal means. When children with ASD are trained non-verbal communication skills at an early age, they become better able to express their emotions and feelings in more than one way such as through body gestures and pointing (Alshurman & Alsreaa, 2015).

Non-verbal communication disorders are prevalent in children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), as evidenced by their weakness in understanding non-verbal communication such as eye communication, hand signs, body language, facial expressions, and cues (Alshurman & Alsreaa, 2015). In addition, language acquisition among children with ASD, unlike in other typically developing children occurs in an atypical manner, making it difficult for teachers to implement evidence-based practices to improve the non-verbal communication skills of children with ASD (Cadette, 2015).

However, the extent to which teachers implement evidence-based practices to improve the nonverbal communication skills of children with ASD, is not known. Children enjoy being kissed and hugged, implying that non-verbal communication and forming with adults is important for children. Negative non-verbal communication such as a frown, for example, usually sends the message that something is wrong and children pick up on this gesture immediately. That means that non-verbal communication skills are important, and can prove to be critical for children with ASD if they are to develop functional communication skills.

Children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) can find it hard to relate to and communicate with other people. They might be slower to develop language, have no language at all, or have significant difficulties in understanding or using spoken language.

Children with ASD often don’t understand that communication is a two-way process that uses eye contact, facial expressions and gestures as well as words. It’s a good idea to keep this in mind when helping them develop language skills.

Some children with ASD develop good speech but can still have trouble knowing how to use language to communicate with other people. They might also communicate mostly to ask for something or protest about something, rather than for social reasons, like getting to know someone.

How well children with ASD communicate is important for other areas of development, like behaviour and learning.

Nonverbal communication
These ways of communicating might include:

Undesirable behaviour
Many children with ASD behave in difficult ways, and this behaviour is often related to communication.

For example, self-harming behaviour, tantrums and aggression towards others might be a child’s way of trying to tell you that they need something, aren’t happy or are really confused or frightened.

Development of Non-Verbal Communication Skills

Joint Attention Training in Autism Spectrum Disorder: Joint attention is defined as a behavior which coordinates interactive behavior between two people in relation to events or objects, or the sharing of such events or objects. For example, this behavior can be related to how an individual associates the shifting of another person’s gaze to an object, thereby making a connection that shifting of the gaze to the object is intended to convey meaning. In typically developing children, the development of non-verbal joint attention is evident at 9-12 months of age, but this same behavior is severely lacking in children with ASD (Bakeman & Adamson, 1984).

Peer Tutoring : According to Alshurman and Alsreaa (2015), peer tutoring can be an effective tool to use for children with ASD. The purpose of their study was to determine if non-verbal communication skills could be developed through peer teaching in a sample of ten 8-10 year old children with ASD. In the study, five children were placed in a control group and five in an experimental group. In the experimental group, normal peers were taken through a peer tutoring program and placed together with children with ASD. The results in the experimental group showed better development in non-verbal communication skills compared to the control group. The better communication skills were attributed to peerteaching. The non-verbal communication skills included imitation, visual communication, shared attention, and understanding facial expressions; all learned through body gestures of peer tutors. At two months follow-up, the differences in the mean scores within the experimental group were not statistically significant, indicating that effects of peer tutoring had been sustained after the experiment.

Drawing: In a number of observations and interviews with teachers, children were found to use drawing to facilitate non-verbal communication for children with ASD (Anim, 2012). In one classroom observation, for example, a child with ASD was able to express a word and even sentences through drawings. Using drawing as a tool for communication in class is not surprising given that many activities in preschool are drawing oriented.

Imitation: Imitation is another basic skill for social-emotional reciprocity. Parents, teachers and peers are all people that young children will imitate. Imitation is one of the ways that children learn. If children with autism have that break in that social-emotional reciprocity, if they have that break in that ability to imitate others, then their social communication is negatively impacted.

Reciprocal engagement: Once we have joint attention in place and we have imitation in place, then we usually enter into that reciprocal engagement. Again, it's the back and forth that we need to maintain long enough to learn something, to enjoy something and to share something with another person. It's paying attention to people versus paying attention to objects. Children with autism have a tendency to focus strongly on objects. Objects are much more predictable than people and much easier for them to understand because of the deficits in their social communication.

2.     Verbal Communication

Sometimes children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) don’t seem to know how to use language, or how to use language in the same ways as typically developing children.

Unconventional use of language
Many children with ASD use words and verbal strategies to communicate and interact, but they might use language in unusual ways.

For example, echolalia is common in children with ASD. This is when children mimic words or phrases without meaning or in an unusual tone of voice. They might repeat someone’s words straight away, or much later on. They might also repeat words they’ve heard on TV, YouTube or videos as well as in real life.

Children with ASD also sometimes:

These are often attempts to get some communication happening, but they don’t always work because you can’t understand what children are trying to say.

For example, children with echolalia might learn to talk by repeating phrases they associate with situations or emotional states, learning the meanings of these phrases by finding out how they work. A child might say ‘Do you want a lolly?’ when she actually wants one herself. This is because when she’s heard that question before, she’s got a lolly.

Over time, many children with ASD can build on these beginnings and learn to use language in ways that more people can understand.

Even verbally fluent individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) have unique methods of communication;

1.     Echolalia

Echolalia refers to the repetition of phrases that people have heard, perhaps in a favorite movie or television program. These phrases may or may not “fit” the context in which they are spoken, however, they typically do point to something concrete. Parents of autistic children are encouraged to watch the programs in which these phrases are spoken to attempt to figure out what their child might be trying to communicate when they use particular phrases.

2.     Focusing on the Literal Meanings of Words

Individuals with some form of ASD typically have trouble understanding idiomatic language and metaphors. Another implication of this trait is a difficulty understanding jokes and humor, which often rely on a sarcastic tone to convey the speaker’s true meaning. A hallmark of the ways individuals with autism communicate is focusing on the “key words” of a sentence. One of the best ways to accommodate this communication style is to speak in simple, plain sentences without idioms or figures of speech that hide the “true message” you’re trying to convey.

3.     Moving from Topic to Topic

One difficulty individuals with autism find with communication is the ability to “stay on topic.” Because their minds are moving very quickly and processing many stimuli, their thoughts may seem disorganized or unfocused. However, this usually isn’t the case–unless an ASD individual has expressed the desire to stop talking about a given topic (in which case, you should definitely move on), they’re usually open to revisiting previous conversation topics.

4.     Speaking with no Eye Contact

The last tool we’ll look at in the 5 ways individuals with autism communicate is the fact that often they will speak with you, but will not make eye contact. People affected by this condition are highly attuned to sensory details, and looking into someone’s eyes can cause an overload of information. Some may prefer to speak with their eyes shut entirely, so as to focus only on the stimuli provided by the conversation. Understanding and accommodating this variety of communication is key to building better communication with ASD individuals.


3.     Social emotional reciprocity

Social-emotional reciprocity is the back and forth interaction that takes place in communication. We take a social approach in having conversations with others, and we share our interests in our conversations with others. Part of that social-emotional reciprocity is knowing how and when to initiate or respond to others' social interactions.

Social reciprocity is the back-and-forth flow of social interaction. The term reciprocity refers to how the behavior of one person influences and is influenced by the behavior of another person and vice versa. Social reciprocity is the dance of social interaction and involves partners working together on a common goal of successful interaction. Adjustments are made by both partners until success is achieved. The skills involved in social reciprocity in very young children begin with showing interest in interacting with others and exchanging smiles. This builds to being able to share conventional meanings with words, and later topics, in conversation. Impairment in social reciprocity may be seen in not taking an active role in social games, preferring solitary activities, or using a person’s hand as a tool or a person as if they are mechanical objects. This may lead to not noticing another person’s distress or lack of interest in the focus or topic of conversation.

Some of the skills necessary to engage in social-emotional reciprocity include:

·       Talking to someone

·       Making eye contact

·       Demonstrating something

·       Using a chart or graph

·       Writing a note, email, etc.

4.     Interpersonal relationships

Interpersonal relationships are sometimes called close relationships. The closest relationships are mostly found with family and a small circle of friends. Interpersonal relationships require the most effort to maintain and nurture. These are also the relationships that give you the most joy and satisfaction.

Much like a living organism, interpersonal relationships have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Interpersonal relationships will gradually grow and evolve, as people get to know each other and become closer, personally and emotionally. These types of relationships will start to diminish as people start to drift apart from each other’s lives and form relationships with others.

Interpersonal relationships are one of the most important relationships a young man or woman can have. Young man or woman that have healthy interpersonal relationships are less likely to fall victim to the pressures of drug and/or alcohol addiction or other types of negative behaviors.

Children and adolescents with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are well known to have difficulties communicating at an interpersonal level with others. In schools, this can present a challenge for teachers where learning is very dependent on the relationships they can build with students and students can build with each other. The difficulties individuals with ASD encounter include recognizing social cues such as those derived from eye contact, gestures, smiles, and similar ways of communicating nonverbally, as well as those obtained from interacting verbally with others such as being able to engage in reciprocal interactions, understanding others’ perspectives, and recognizing others’ emotional states. Other difficulties that have been well documented include restrictive and repetitive patterns of behavior, fixated interests, and difficulties adjusting to changes in routines. These patterns of behavior emerge in early childhood and have been characterized as a lack of understanding of not only one’s mind but also the minds of others—or what is commonly referred to as a theory of mind (ToM). Alongside this theoretical lens, there are also neuroscientific perspectives that are helpful to consider. 

5. Variations across the spectrum

Autism is not a single disorder, but a spectrum of closely related disorders with a shared core of symptoms. Every individual on the autism spectrum has problems to some degree with social interaction, empathy, communication, and flexible behavior. But the level of disability and the combination of symptoms varies tremendously from person to person. In fact, two kids with the same diagnosis may look very different when it comes to their behaviors and abilities.

There is understandably a great deal of confusion about the names of various autism-related disorders. Some professionals speak of “the autisms” to avoid addressing the sometimes-subtle differences among the conditions along the autism spectrum. Up to 2013, there were five different “autism spectrum disorders.” The differences among those five were hard to understand for parents trying to figure out which—if any—of these conditions affected their child. The American Psychiatric Association attempted to simplify matters by combining the pervasive developmental disorders into a single diagnostic classification called “Autism Spectrum Disorder” in the latest edition of the diagnostic bible known as the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Since many people were diagnosed prior to the change in the classification system and since many professionals still refer to the pre-2013 labels, we summarize them here for your reference. For purposes of clarity, we emphasize that all of the following conditions are now encompassed under the umbrella classification “Autism Spectrum Disorder” (ASD).

The three most common forms of autism in the pre-2013 classification system were Autistic Disorder—or classic autism; Asperger’s Syndrome; and Pervasive Developmental Disorder – Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS). These three disorders share many of the same symptoms, but they differ in their severity and impact. Autistic disorder was the most severe. Asperger’s Syndrome, sometimes called high-functioning autism, and PDD-NOS, or atypical autism, were the less severe variants. Childhood disintegrative disorder and Rett Syndrome were also among the pervasive developmental disorders. Because both are extremely rare genetic diseases, they are usually considered to be separate medical conditions that don’t truly belong on the autism spectrum.

In large part due to inconsistencies in the way that people were classified, all of the above-named variants of autism are now referred to as “Autism Spectrum Disorder.” The single label shifts the focus away from where your child falls on the autism spectrum to whether your child has Autism Spectrum Disorder. If your child is developmentally delayed or exhibits other autism-like behaviors, you will need to visit a medical professional or a clinical psychologist who specializes in diagnostic testing for a thorough evaluation. Your doctor can help you figure out whether your child has Autism Spectrum Disorder and how severely they are affected.

Savant skills in autism spectrum disorder

Approximately 10% of people with autism spectrum disorders have special “savant” skills, such as Dustin Hoffman portrayed in the film Rain Man. The most common savant skills involve mathematical calculations, calendars, artistic and musical abilities, and feats of memory. For example, an autistic savant might be able to multiply large numbers in their head, play a piano concerto after hearing it once, or quickly memorize complex maps.