For People with Autism, Communication = Conversation
While there are slight variations of its exact definition, “conversation” is essentially verbal (language or words) or nonverbal (gestures, facial expressions) communication between two or more people for the purpose of establishing and maintaining social relations. Conversation (aka “discussion” or “dialogue”) is a way to exchange different ideas, points of view, beliefs, knowledge, intents, desires, feelings, and so forth. Conversation can also occur within oneself while thinking. The dynamics of conversation can vary. It can be as short as a pair of exchanges between two conversational partners or extend into multiple rounds of back-and-forth comments with several partners. Even non-verbal exchanges (e.g., a head nod, written words, body gestures) are considered conversation. Conversations can revolve around a single topic or branch off and lead into different topics. These topics can be based on things occurring in-view at that moment or out-of-view like relating a past event. Especially nowadays, given multiple modes of communication like texting, instant messaging, email, social media, or the phone, we are inundated with opportunities and are expected to have more effective conversations. In all cases, conversation utilizes language with other people in order to bring us together into each other’s worlds with the purpose of building stronger social relationships. At the heart of autism are difficulties with social relations and language, and therefore, difficulties with having conversations. Not every person with autism is able to meet these highly specific criteria of conventional conversation. A broader definition of conversation must be considered; otherwise, many people with autism may never truly be accepted as part of the social world. Thus, every communicative interaction of a person with autism must be considered conversational. This means that exchanges such as verbal or nonverbal rituals, routines, greetings, polite markers, and instructions should be considered conversation, even though these might not be the richest or most engaging forms. Some people with autism are able to engage in some form of “typical” conversation; however, all facets may not exist or be adequate or accurate such as:
initiating/maintaining/ending a conversation
the ability to rephrase (using other words to clarify)
proxemics (e.g., standing too close to the listener)
intonation (appropriate tone of voice)
topic choice of interest to the listener
maxims (e.g., talking too much/too little; providing relevant, on-topic contributions)
In any case, simply because he or she is unable to have perfect or typical conversations does not invalidate the fact that one occurred.
Given specialized instruction for both verbal and nonverbal communication, people with autism will continually develop and improve social relationships. Valuing his or her ongoing contributions as a member of society, our role is to acknowledge, accept, reinforce, and help to improve all attempts at conversation. -KKS
P.S.: Upcoming articles will address the communication of people with autism as well as methods that families can use to improve conversations and support stronger relationships. Stay tuned!