Autism is recognised as a social communicative disorder, with its core defining features largely associated with differences and deficits 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 has difficulties in reciprocal conversations
- Expressive language may appear to be better than receptive understanding
- May become frustrated by communication difficulties
Impact of social communication difficulties 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
|Difficulty in processing and understanding verbal language
- Difficulty in any task which relies on verbal language e.g. telephone calls, job interviews, understanding instructions given oven public tannoy systems.
- Cannot learn 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
- Difficulty 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.
- Difficulty in working as part of a team in school/workplace.
- Difficulty 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.