Social communication

Autism is recognised as having social communicative differences, with core defining features largely associated with differences and challenges in receptive communication (understanding verbal and non-verbal language), expressive communication (developmentally appropriate speech and language skills) and social interaction (engaging in two-way communication with others).

Examples of social communication differences in autism include:

  • Pre-verbal or non-verbal i.e. not communicating through verbal language
  • Delay in the development of speech and language skills
  • Echolalia i.e. repeating learnt phrases or sounds
  • Does not understand the power of language i.e. using language to request needs or feelings
  • Absent or awkward body language and facial expression
  • Fleeting or no eye contact, or may stare intently at people
  • Difficulty in understanding verbal language i.e. what others are saying
  • Difficulty in understanding facial expression, body language and gesture
  • Delay in responding to others e.g. responding to questions, instructions or participating in a conversation
  • Limited shared attention
  • Overwhelmed by social interaction so may seek solitude, or wants to interact with others but is unsure how to participate in interactions
  • Speaks in a monologue and experiences challenges  in reciprocal conversations
  • Expressive language may appear to be better than receptive understanding
  • May become frustrated by communication differences

Impact of social communication differences on life skill development

Many of the social communication differences associated with autism will have a significant impact on the development of life skills. Some examples of this are given in the table below:

Social communication difference Impact on life skill development
Challenges in processing and understanding verbal language

  • Experiences challenges in any task which relies on verbal language e.g. telephone calls, job interviews, understanding instructions given oven public tannoy systems.
  • May have difficulties learning new skills through traditional teaching methods i.e. verbal instructions.
  • Delayed or no response when asked questions or given instructions, which then restricts independence in using community facilities and can have an impact on personal safety.
  • Anxiety in interaction with others, which can lead to social withdrawal and isolation.
  • Can limit future employment options unless adaptations are made to facilitate receptive language deficits.
Limited shared attention

  • Unlikely to learn new skills spontaneously by watching and imitating others.  Skills therefore need to be explicitly taught rather than occurring as part of typical development.
  • Limits early play and interaction skills, and later affects leisure and friendship skills.
Limited verbal communication skills


  • Challenges in using community facilities e.g. ordering food in a café, buying a ticket at the cinema, asking for an item in a shop.
  • Unable to ask for help.
  • Affects personal safety due to difficulties in requesting help e.g. if lost when out alone or in accessing emergency services.
  • Members of the public may have difficulty understanding communication system e.g. visual communication systems.
  • Child/young person may have only used visual communication system in home/school and may lack confidence using it in other environments.
  • Affects performance in job interviews as most depend on high level verbal communication skills.
Anxiety in social interactions

  • Affects engagement in leisure activities.
  • Avoids social opportunities e.g. membership of a club, going out with friends.
  • Experiences challenges in working as part of a team in school/workplace.
  • Experiences challenges with social times of the day e.g. the playground in school; the staff room in the workplace.
  • May rely on interaction through technology-based media (computer games, social media) which can then carry personal safety risks.
  • Social withdrawal will have an impact on mental health and emotional wellbeing.
Absent or fleeting eye contact

  • May make it difficult to gain attention of others e.g. when ordering food in a restaurant or requesting assistance in a shop.
  • Affects interaction with others e.g. greeting others, initiating conversations, making friendships.