Speech, language, and communication needs (SLCN) run through the autism spectrum from one ‘end’ to the other. They are like words through a stick of Blackpool rock. Wherever you snap that stick, there is the word Blackpool running right through it. SLCN is universal across autism and is fundamental to the pattern of differences we call ‘autism’.
The longer I spend exploring, learning, and thinking about autism, the more I am coming to the conclusion that it’s the non-verbal aspects of autism that account for most of the difficulties and differences we see. The difficulties with language and speech are more obvious; they are easier to detect. Non-verbal communication difficulties are harder to spot. How do people on the spectrum perceive tone of voice, facial expression, gesture, body orientation? As well as being harder to detect, they are perhaps also responsible for a bigger impact on communication than language and speech difficulties.
Let’s think about people without autism – they have this innate, inbuilt ability to connect with other people in a way that is invisible. They didn’t learn it. It’s already part of them. They are linked together by some invisible wireless network, that Digby Tantam calls the Interbrain. They recognise other human beings as similar devices to themselves and without even thinking about it they just want to connect and can connect. And, like a smartphone or tablet computer, they have the technology to ‘pair and share’. In the world of ICT, it’s done with Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, infra-red, you name it. In people without autism it’s done with nodding, winking, gesturing, looking, face-reading technologies. That’s how we connect and communicate or pair and share. In short, non-verbal communication. Notice how at the cinema when one person coughs, everybody coughs or in a meeting when one person yawns, everybody needs to yawn. Like the Borg, we just have this ability to assimilate each other! Look how easily we move like a crowd, leave space for each other or become aware of the presence and orientation of others even when we can’t see them!
Now let’s think about people who do have autism. For them, the non-verbal communication factors that connect others together into a communicating, social force are not well developed. When these non-verbal communication differences are coupled with speech and language differences, they place the individual with autism at a disadvantage in a highly social environment.
Good news! Non-verbal skills can be learnt. Children and adults with autism can be helped to pair and share effectively when we get the teaching right. So, let’s get started with some tried and trusted teaching and learning to kick-start verbal AND non-verbal communication skills!
Director, Positive About Autism