Using the telephone

Potential Challenges

  • Deficits in receptive language will cause difficulties in telephone conversations. For example, the individual with autism may not be able to process and understand what the other person in saying. This in turn may then lead to anxiety when using the telephone and a refusal to make/receive calls.
  • Deficits in receptive language will also cause difficulties in being able to take telephone messages. The individual with autism may have difficulty in retaining information given by the other person and so may not accurately record or pass on messages, or may misinterpret the information given.
  • Best Practice Resource
  • Young people with autism can be vulnerable when answering the telephone due to difficulties in fully processing and understanding the information the other person is giving. If they receive a telephone call from a ‘cold caller’, they could unknowingly give personal/financial information or purchase a product.
  • Deficits in expressive language will make it difficult for some individuals with autism to communicate via the telephone. They may not be able to clearly and articulately state what they need, ask appropriate questions or engage in a conversation with the other person. They may become anxious, which will further inhibit their ability to verbally communicate.
  • The telephone may be too abstract for some children and young people. As they cannot see the other person, they may not realise that they can engage in an interaction. However, others may prefer the telephone as a means of communication as it removes many of the other demands associated with interaction e.g. physical proximity, facial expression, body language.
  • The social rules of using a telephone can be confusing e.g. knowing when to hang up, taking turns to speak, finishing the conversation appropriately before hanging up.
  • Using text messaging and social media to communicate via telephone can bring advantages and potential risks for individuals with autism.
  • The advantages of texting and other messaging services (e.g. WhatsApp, Snapchat and Facebook) allows:
    • The young person with autism time to think and plan what they are going to say.
    • It also gives them more time to process and interpret what others are saying. This can therefore be easier than a verbal interaction.
    • However, there is a risk that messages will be misinterpreted shared with others or that the young person becomes involved in ‘chats’ with people who they do not know.

Recommendations/ Resources

  • Teach telephone skills with familiar people initially e.g. making a telephone call to a family member. They will be more understanding of the young person’s communication difficulties and will know to allow more time for processing.
  • Scripts may be used when initially learning to use the telephone, and again these will be best used with familiar people who can be prepared that the young person will be practising telephone conversations with them. A written ‘script’ beside the telephone will provide prompts and assist the young person in increasing their confidence in telephone interactions. Scripts can be gradually faded as confidence increases; telephone conversations will not always be predictable so it is important that the individual can interact with a more minimal script.
  • Text messaging and other messaging services may be a better communication option for some young people with autism. If they have difficulties processing verbal language, using a messaging service allows them to rely instead on visual information and they have longer to process the information. They can read the message several times, whereas it is difficult to ask for verbal information to be repeated several times.
  • Equally, if the individual has expressive language difficulties, a messaging service gives them more time to compose articulate responses and interactions.
  • If the young person is using messaging services, especially social media services, draw up a set of rules to ensure safety. Identify a family member who can support the young person using messaging services. This could be a parent, but the young person may prefer a peer, such as a sibling or cousin.
  • Some young people with autism may prefer Face timing/video calls as this may make the interaction feel more concrete and ‘real’. However, others may find that watching the other person on the screen is distracting and affects their ability to interact.
  • Role play can be used as a way of teaching the young person how to appropriately answer the telephone and take a message. This allows the opportunity to practise different scenarios and to increase the individual’s confidence in answering the telephone. Make the role play as ‘real’ as possible by preparing familiar people to make telephone calls to the young person.
  • Rehearse potential problems that may arise on the telephone and work with the young person to prepare solutions to these scenarios e.g. what to do if the telephone is engaged, what to do if nobody answers the phone, what to do if asked to leave a voicemail message, what to do it a wrong number is dialled.

Points to remember

  • It should be noted that some young people with autism may find the telephone easier than face-to-face contact as the telephone removes the need to process and interpret facial expression and gesture, so the young person can just focus on the verbal information which is being communicated.
  • It is important to teach the young person what information they should or should not give over the telephone. This is similar to what information they should provide when using websites.
  • It should be agreed with the young person that they check with a family member before carrying out actions such as adding new “friends”, messaging an unknown number, posting photos or using chat rooms. This person could also have access to the messaging account so they can check regularly check messages to monitor risk of bullying etc.