Social communication is more than verbal or written communication. It refers to the unwritten rules of social interaction. Most people seem to intuitively learn how to communicate in various social situations. However, people with autism often see social communication as a foreign language, to be learned through practice and repetition.
For example, what is the proper answer to the simple question, “How are you?”
- If your doctor asks the question, the answer would be a description of the symptoms: “I have a sore throat and an upset stomach.”
- If your mother asks the question, the answer might be a description of recent life events. “I’m doing okay. Went to the movie last Tuesday, but otherwise, not much is going on.”
- If the clerk at the grocery store asks the question, the answer would be: “Fine”.
People who don’t have autism intuitively recognize that the answer to the question depends on the social situation. A wrong answer can be frustrating to those around the person with autism. Imagine the grocery clerk’s reaction to a description of medical symptoms, or a busy doctor’s reaction to a response of “Fine”.
Even a simple response like “Fine” may have different meanings, depending on tone of voice or facial expression. If you were just told that the social event you had been looking forward to was called off and someone asked, “How are you?”, you might answer “Fine” angrily and storm off. In this case “Fine” essentially means “I am not happy about the situation, but I don’t have a choice in the matter.”
The best way for an autistic person to learn social communication is through careful guidance and practice. It is impossible to learn a foreign language simply by purchasing a book written in that language. Purchasing a book designed to teach the foreign language is more helpful, but the best way to learn is by practicing the language with a native speaker who can point out the nuances of the differences in the languages. Similarly, a social skills class or a friend attuned to autistic differences can help a person with autism better understand social communication. Even friends who both have autism can help one another, as not everyone will find the same phrases or expressions confusing.
Many people with autism find written communication is easier to follow. This eliminates the need to simultaneously interpret tone of voice, facial expressions, and hand movements. Also, written communication can be re-read for clarity, as needed. In the work environment, use of simple written communication can alleviate many of the misunderstandings between employees with autism and those without autism.
nonPareil Institute is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit with a mission of building better futures for adults with autism. For more information, visit www.npusa.org.