How do children with Autism communicate differently than typically developing preschool children?
Language disorders are often widely accepted as typical of children with autism. In fact, it may be the most noticed characteristic. A language disorder is defined as a deficit in using words or vocabulary. It can also involve how a child understands language and uses it in social settings. For children with autism, a pragmatic language delay is often seen. Pragmatic language involves using language in a social setting. For example, knowing what is appropriate to say, when to say it, and the general give-and-take nature of a friendly conversation. Because autism is a spectrum ranging from severe to very mild, children with autism will have communication abilities that range from not talking at all (nonverbal) to being able to communicate very well. Often, children with autism who talk will appear to use words and speech in a way that is not meaningful or non-functional.
What do you mean by "communication that is not meaningful"?
Non-functional communication is speech that is understood and spoken clearly, but has no relevance to the interaction that is taking place. For example, four-year-old Evan knows how to talk and does so frequently, but when you ask him to go outside, he simply says, "Bottom of the ninth and the bases are loaded." Evan is communicating. In fact, he is answering the question. Unfortunately, he is answering it in a non-functional manner. However, sometimes what sounds like non-functional communication can, with careful observation, be the child's way of answering in a way that makes sense to him. In other words, there are times when non-functional communication from a teacher's perspective is functional for the child. What Evan really means is, "Going outside is very stressful."
How can non-functional communication be functional for the child?
To answer this question, let's examine how Larry answers questions. He is five, knows about colors, and can name and describe each of them. However, when asked, "Larry, what is your favorite color?" he replies, "Lemon yellow." On the other hand, when asked, "Would you like to go to the block center?" he replies "Crimson red." It appears that he is answering the first question appropriately or functionally, while his answer to the second question is non-functional and not appropriate.
Larry's teacher has been observing his communication for some time, and has observed that every time Larry responds with "crimson red," it is his way of saying "No!" He has also observed that when Larry means "yes," he answers with "sunset orange." His teacher, through observation and experience, has learned to interpret the meaning behind Larry's non-functional communication. But it doesn't mean that Larry's teacher needs to stop encouraging him to answer "yes" or "no." It means that, while he is learning to answer "yes" and "no," his teacher at least knows how to interpret the way in which Larry is currently expressing his wishes.
Why do children with Autism have so much trouble communicating?
Effective communication is more than just sending and receiving messages. It requires that one person, either the sender or the receiver of the message, interact with the other person. Actually, for the interaction to be successful, the other person must reciprocate in some way. In initiating an exchange of a message or information, the sender must be willing to approach the person with which she will be communicating. Although the child with autism may be able to answer a direct question or make a statement about what she wants, starting a conversation is especially difficult. In fact, a child with autism will more likely initiate a communication when she wants or needs something. It is less likely that she will initiate communication simply for the sake of a social interaction.
Contributed by Clarissa Willis, Ph.D. Dr. Willis has worked for the past 20 years on behalf of children with autism spectrum disorder and their families. She is the author of five books, including the award-winning titles Teaching Young Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder and Inclusive Literacy Lessons for Early Childhood. Her articles on child development and early childhood special education have been published both nationally and internationally. Formerly an Associate Professor of Special Education and the Associate Director of the Center of Excellence in Early Childhood Learning and Development at East Tennessee State University, she currently works as an early childhood consultant and frequent speaker at national and international conferences. Dr. Willis lives in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.