* To read Victoria’s article, Working with Autistic Students: Language and Communication in full, see here.
Do you really know how to communicate with an autistic student? We have summarised Special Needs Teacher, Victoria Honeybourne’s vibrant article into a list of techniques to help you.
Being autistic herself, Victoria has given us a great insight into the inner workings of an autistic student and we couldn’t wait to share it with you!
Before we get going…
Tip: Be sure to check the tips at the end of the sections!
Young people, in general, are like sponges. They subconsciously absorb the attitudes and beliefs that the adults around them reflect.
Autistic students can be affected by this due to their literal understanding. A good example of this is in a conversation you most probably have heard or even had yourself. It’s the ‘diet’ conversation.
Someone with autism could very soon believe that eating healthily makes them a ‘good person’ and eating unhealthily makes them a ‘bad person’.
Tip: Think before you speak! What message are you really giving? Also remember that you might not be speaking directly to an autistic student but this does not mean that they are not picking up on what you are saying.
Autistic students are often taught conversational skills explicitly. For example, they may be taught these signs to recognise when somebody is bored in a conversation:
– The listener may yawn
– The listener may take on a ‘glazed’ look
– The listener may glance at their watch
– The listener may fidget
– The listener may become monosyllabic in their responses
This all sounds pretty straight-forward but the problem is that in real life, people are simply too polite to do these things!
Tip: Try not to make communication any more difficult than it already is. Are you actually following the ‘rules’ of communication that you are teaching your students?
In general conversation, people often say things they don’t really mean for a number of reasons. Some of these are:
– Out of habit
– Not wishing to show disagreement
– Having to ‘think on the spot’
– Wanting to fill a gap in conversation
– Because they are simply thinking aloud
Also, some people will forget much of what they have said. Autistic individuals often don’t forget. It’s common for them to take things literally and remember conversations verbatim so this can be incredibly frustrating for them. They may think the person is lying to them or is not to be trusted.
Tip: Say what you mean and mean what you say! Apologise if you make a mistake, be honest if you change your mind and admit it if you have forgotten that you promised or said something previously.
Evidence indicates that many autistic people find it much easier to process just one stream of input at a time. This is valid in conversation and communication too.
A scenario that frequently occurs in school is that of several members of staff talking to one student at once. For example, a teaching assistant may re-phrase what the teacher is saying or in behavioural management situations where staff members may support each other by repeating information.
Although intending to be helpful, these situations can actually make it more difficult for the autistic student. Suddenly, there are two people to deal with meaning that they are unable to concentrate on just one. This could cause increased anxiety levels.
Autistic people often interpret tone of voice differently. Some staff believe that this means they have to emphasise and exaggerate. Here are some of the following voices they may use:
– The ‘let’s-speak-very-slowly-and-clearly-so-they-understand’ voice
– The ‘very-loud-to-show-this-is-important’ voice
– The ‘super-over-enthusiastic-special-needs’ voice
Often autistic people have heightened sensitivity to sound in the first place. The sing-song enthusiastic voice could come across as grating and patronising. The loud voice is already amplified so could sound like shouting and the slow. clear voice could give the impression that the they think the student is stupid.
Yes, you read the last subheading correctly: eyebrows, mascara and botox.
The fashion for heavily-plucked, artificially-shaped and drawn-on eyebrows does not make communication easy for those on the autistic spectrum.
An autistic person may believe that the person is surprised or in a state of disbelief if their eyebrows are artificial. It makes facial expressions much more difficult for them to read correctly.
The same goes for heavily made-up eyes which tend to make the person look tired or unhappy and bottomed foreheads often leave the person devoid of any expression at all.
Tip: If you work with autistic students often, it might be worth checking in the mirror first just to check you’re not inadvertently making communication anymore difficult than it already is!