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ASD Language-based communication issues

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Herman & Associates

Autistic Spectrum Disorders: Language-based/Communication Issues

This section contains anecdotal information collected through our clinical experience in working with many individuals on the Autistic Spectrum.  This is not research based scientific evidence.  Herman & Associates offers these observations only as points for discussion and as possible research topics in the future. 

One of the main clusters of symptoms central to the diagnosis of ASD is a unique set of language and communication skills.  In fact, the degree of proficiency and use of language distinguishes individuals with various ASDs. 

Language strengths - People with Asperger’s Syndrome (AS) generally demonstrate fluent and advanced vocabulary, good phonology (the way sounds function within a given language), and syntax (rules of language), however struggle with receptive language, expressive language, nonverbal communication, and pragmatics (the social context of language).  Their cognitive style impacts their work in the classroom and they generally have a specific set of academic relative strengths (e.g., reading decoding, math calculations) and weaknesses (e.g., reading comprehension, math applications, written language). 

Language weaknesses - Individuals with High Functioning Autism (HFA) have a similar pattern to AS without the splinter strengths in vocabulary, phonology, and syntax.  In fact, individuals with HFA have significant language weaknesses and find it extremely difficult to communicate their thoughts and feelings to others.  Their areas of weakness in language involve both receptive and expressive language.  They often misunderstand the intent of others and have great difficulty formulating sentences that express their ideas.  This is especially true under stress and trying to problem solve.  People with HFA frequently withdraw, not knowing how to communicate their problems to others.  They may find that someone close to them who knows them well (e.g., a parent) can provide language prompts that assist them in finding the language needed to communicate.

Abstract reasoning - Most individuals with an ASD have a relative weaknesses in abstract reasoning, which often impacts accurate comprehension of spoken language.  Since they tend to have a literal interpretation of dialogue, they often misunderstand the more subtle ideas in a message.  Problems with abstract reasoning also produce a tendency to over-simplify message in a communication, which leads to over looking, or ignoring, the more subtle, grey areas of a conversation.  Struggles with emotional regulation (e.g., management of anxiety, frustration) and a tendency to become fixated on one minor aspect of a message also compromise accurate interpretation of information. 

Prosody - Individuals with ASD often display problems with intonation, rhythm, and focus in speech.  They often speak with a monotone voice with little variation that can restrict the communication of intent and/or emotions.  

Pragmatics - Pragmatics involves understanding how to use language appropriately in social situations.  Linguists make a distinction in pragmatics betweensentence meaning and speaker meaning.  Sentence meaning is the literal meaning of the sentence, while the speaker meaning involves determining the concept that the speaker is trying to convey.  This distinction is very useful in helping us understand how people with ASD misunderstand and misuse language.  Individuals with ASD may have little difficulty understanding and using sentence meaning, but they often have difficulty deriving and formulating speaker meaning.  For example, individuals with AS  have strengths in vocabulary, sentence structure, grammar, but have difficulty applying their language strengths to a social situation.  Problem areas with pragmatics appear in using language for different purposes such as greeting, informing, demanding, promising, and making requests.

Social rules for conversations - Individuals with ASD also do not understand the social rules for conversations and narrative.  We have rules for how to begin, maintain, and end a conversation.  It is important that we learn how to take turns in a conversation, how to read when other's have loss their interest, how to rephrase language when other's have not understood, and the importance of staying on topic.  Additionally, there are nonverbal prompts that are important in conversations such as establishing the appropriate proximity to the listener, displaying facial expressions that are congruent with the topic and emotions involved in the discussion, and maintaining appropriate eye contact.  Furthermore, many of these rules are culturally bound and change according to the social context.  Individuals with ASD often struggle with all aspect of the social rules in conversation.  Consequently, they are less able to have a natural conversation and struggle with verbal communication in social situations. There is a tendency to make literal interpretations and they may vocalize thoughts and talk to themselves. They exhibit unusual verbal fluency, either talking too much or too little. Their conversations tend to be one-sided. Because of their egocentrism, they often establish monologue conversations concerning their areas of interest without regard for the other person's level of interest or attentiveness to the topic.  They tend to interrupt others because they have difficulty identifying the social cues for when to start talking.

Memorization of social rules - Individuals who are very bright (in the gifted range of intelligence) often have the ability to use their strong rote memory to cover for weaknesses in recognition of social cues.  These exceptional individuals have the ability to memorize social protocols and patterns of successful communications.  One gifted person with AS recognized his social communication problems and obtained a job as a reporter.  He practiced and over-learned interviewing skills and could conduct an interview very well.  However, when it was socially appropriate to move the conversation away from an interview style, he was quickly lost and could not continue an natural flow to the conversation.  Nevertheless, he was successful in giving the appearance of stronger social skills than he actually had and this is adequate for many social relationships.

Adapting language - Another area of language that often confuses individuals with ASD is the need to sometimes adapt, or vary language according to the needs or expectations of the listener or situation.  For example, learning to use a softer voice when speaking to a child or during a dinner conversation rather than a play yard.  They may have trouble introducing a topic of a communication and tend to begin in the middle of a conversation rather than give the listener adequate background information that would facilitate the listener's understanding. 

Academic patterns - Individuals with AS tend to perform better with rote tasks and this generally transfers to academic strengths in a number of areas.  They tend to have very strong vocabulary, phonemic awareness, and reading decoding skills.  Their strength in decoding also translates into strengths in spelling, and sometimes writing mechanics (e.g., punctuation, capitalization).  Their strengths in rote skills can also generalize to strengths in math calculations.  However, tasks that require abstract reasoning are difficult for them.  Consequently, reading comprehension is generally not as strong because they have trouble deriving meaning from passages, especially when the themes are implicit.  While their writing may include very interesting vocabulary and word choice, they struggle with organization and communication of complex ideas.  Math application also presents a challenge as interpretation of graphs, charts, and word problems is difficult.  Individuals with ASD also commonly have visual-perceptual issues that would also contribute to problems with math reasoning.



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