Sowing the Seeds of Communication for People with Autism
“…everything that human beings say or do (including nothing) is noticed by others and has meaning to them. Consequently, every social situation involves communication.”
~ Richard W. Dillman, Chair of Communications at Mcdaniel College, Author
Our need and desire to communicate with others is enormous. It’s triggered by the interaction between events in our surroundings and how our mind and body interpret such experiences. Given “homeostasis”, or a relatively stable basis within the social environment, communication starts when there is a disruption or a change of which we are alert, aware, and engaged. Since some people with autism are “under-responsive” as they have difficulty with perception of their physical feelings or physical senses (e.g., thirst, hunger, pain, smell, sight) and mental emotions (e.g., sadness, jealousy, fear, surprise), they appear quiet, passive, or withdrawn. In addition to having this difficulty detecting sensory input within themselves, they might not automatically monitor the stimuli within their surroundings. They might not always be alert to anticipate or notice a change in the homeostasis of their environment which could become different, interesting, special, unusual, confusing, weird, new, and so on.
Because of this difficulty of alertness combined with trouble manipulating language, some people with autism may not be aware to respond or act by communicating through verbal (language and words) and nonverbal (facial expressions, gestures) means to regulate their environment and return to homeostasis.
We can make it easier for them to become alert of surrounding events in order to identify a change in homeostasis. The most effective way to capture their attention is by using one of or a combination of the following methods:
Alter your tone of voice in different ways (e.g., shouting, calling, whispering)
Make sudden vocal sounds (e.g., gasps, one-word interjections such as “Wow!”, “Ooops!”; “Uh-oh!”)
Exaggerate facial expressions, body language, and/or gestures
Guide their attention with your pointer finger
Say ‘observant’ words (e.g., “Look at that!”; “Listen to this!”; “Smell this!”)
Sensationalize by using descriptor words (e.g., “yummy”; “stinky”; “bumpy”)
Sabotage their environment (e.g., Direct the person to go to a shelf to get something that does not exist or to unscrew a lid that has been purposefully made closed tightly.)
Use ridiculousness (e.g., Make purposeful mistakes, like while coloring along with the person, color the sun green or, after a request for an item, give him or her a wrong item.)
Be in close proximity and use gentle touch or guidance to direct her or his attention
Obtain eye contact by directing your fingers from his or her eyes to your eyes or holding up the desired or interesting item to your eyes.
Awareness is a response that requires both appropriate interpretation and language to attach to the stimulus. We might have to help the person understand the stimulus and assign or model the words, including those of physical feelings (e.g., pain, hunger, dizziness) and emotional/mental feelings in order to come to a resolution of homeostasis.
Examples of combining alertness with awareness:
We can help the person with autism become alert through the physical sense of smell of cookies baking by sniffing and licking our lips. Then, we can help the person become aware by modeling and asking for imitation, “You say, ‘Mmm…the cookies smell delicious!’”
We can help the person with autism become alert through the emotional sense by pointing to someone nearby who is crying and say, “Look at that girl. Give her a hug and say, ‘Don’t be sad. Everything will be ok.’”
After the child was spinning around, the mother can model for the child, “Tell me, ‘Mom, I feel dizzy. I want to sit down.’”
Conversely, some people with autism are “over-responsive” and notice the slightest homeostatic change because they are overly sensitive to stimuli. Thoughts that should be silent come out verbally through talking too much about unimportant details, impulsively making statements, or asking too many questions as they are unable to deduce or reason by themselves. For example, while riding in his mother’s car at the very moment that the rain just stopped, a child notices a woman walking on the sidewalk with her umbrella still opened. He asks his mother why the woman did not close her umbrella yet, but before his mother had a chance to answer, he rolls down the window and calls out, “Hey! You have to close your umbrella because it’s not raining anymore!” Furthermore, at times, the accuracy, sensitivity, and appropriateness of their interpretations, perceptions, and reactions might be off-base to some degree. We can help by encouraging more self-thought through using one of or a combination of the following methods:
Halt him/her from being overly wordy (e.g., “Wait a minute. Do you think that person knows…?”; “What do you think that person is thinking?”)
Re-direct his/her focus and thought pattern (e.g., “That’s not very important right now. This is what you need to look at and think about…”)
Repeat the same pat response to constant questions (e.g., “What do you think”)
To conclude, some people with autism can be both over- and under-responsive at different times. Being cognizant of this, our job is to help regulate this balance back to homeostasis by either pointing out what the person did not respond to or suppressing what has been over-responded to, depending on each situation. When a person with autism becomes alert to changes in homeostasis and aware of the resolution, appropriate communication has occurred, leading to stronger social relationships. -KKS
photo credit: Secrets of the Sun