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How People With Autism Spectrum Disorder Communicate – Part I


Communication difficulties are at the core of Asperger's in adults
Adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder have trouble recognizing what others are thinking and responding accordingly

Recently, I wrote a series of articles about the typical ways that people with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) think. It seems worthwhile to extend this examination to the area of communication, since conversing verbally and nonverbally with others poses a great deal of difficulty for those with Autism.

Although socializing, i.e. interacting with others is often considered the main problem with ASD, communication is what makes such interacting either work or not work. Ineffective communication leads to ineffective relationships, and impairments of communication are what form the deficits in developing, maintaining and understanding relationships that typify Autism.

As I emphasized in my articles on thinking, to understand how people with Autism Spectrum Disorder communicate requires understanding two facts. First, Autism Spectrum Disorder is a complex syndrome that varies considerably in how it appears. Some people with Autism Spectrum Disorder may not communicate exactly as I describe it while others fit this description perfectly. It bears reminding that no two people with ASD are identical. General descriptions of ASD are exactly that, broad characterizations that may or may not match how any one individual communicates.

Second, unlike most people, those with Autism Spectrum Disorder do not have the innate ability to notice and comprehend the emotional states of others. It is the built-in interest in, and focus on, others that from the earliest moments of life shape how most people think, act and communicate. Lacking such an ability to recognize, even be interested in, how other people think and feel leads to the characteristic behaviors and thought processes that are unique to Autism.

Difficulties of Communication in People with Autism Spectrum Disorder

People with Autism Spectrum Disorder have difficulty:

  • Processing language and interpreting facial expressions, body language and tone of voice.
  • Understanding figures of speech or metaphors. Their literal understanding means they will think you mean exactly what you say. Metaphors such as, “she bit my head off” are confusing, even frightening. Sarcasm and humor are often difficult for them to comprehend.
  • Following long or complicated sentences. Complex, varied instructions cause a great difficulty for someone with ASD. Communication in the workplace, and particularly in gatherings of people, such as parties or discussion groups, is often overwhelming even though the person may appear to have good verbal skills.

Typically, adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder have superficially intact language form and structure. They are able to arrange words or phrases to create well-formed sentences that are grammatically correct but they find organizing and using their communication quite difficult. The rules of grammar and syntax (how words are ordered) are not where the trouble lies. Instead it is in the function of language and how it is used to communicate one’s intent that is affected by Autism.

To emphasize, using language for communication purposes is where adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder have trouble, not in the language itself. Indeed, impairments in the social use of communication are one of the important means of identifying whether someone has Autism.

Social Understanding and Communication in Autism Spectrum Disorder

To fully understand how people with Autism communicate one must first understand why they communicate. I am not referring to the necessity of exchanging ideas and information. Instead, I mean the reasons why it is that communication in ASD is so difficult. I am referring to the concept of mindblindness.

Adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder, even those who are highly functioning, well-adapted and social capable have trouble figuring out what other people think and feel based on the way they behave. While most people can read a person’s facial expression, body language, and tone of voice and from this recognize that person’s thoughts and feelings and likely course of action, those with ASD have great difficulty doing this. They have trouble putting themselves in the shoes of someone else and imagining what that person thinks and feels.

Because people with Autism Spectrum Disorder have specific difficulty in understanding social information they are particularly compromised in their ability to understand what is implied in communication. Such difficulty in knowing what is suggested but not directly expressed in someone’s comments, is at the core of why those with Autism have trouble communicating competently.

The statement, “I can’t decide what shoes to wear,” implies the person has different shoes to choose from. If, however, it is difficult to imagine that person having a variety of shoes such that it would be a problem to sort them out and pick two to wear, it would be equally difficult to respond to this dilemma with something approaching a clear understanding and, hopefully, an empathic reply.


In my next article in this series, I will take a look at literal language and metaphorical language and how the two are characteristically difficult for adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder to understand and use in day-to-day communication.


Dr. Kenneth Roberson

Dr. Kenneth Roberson is an Adult Autism Psychologist in San Francisco with over 30 years of experience. Click below to ask a question or schedule an appointment.

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