Make Agreements To Improve Mutual Communication

by Catherine Faherty, written in 2010, remains valid – in fact essential – today.

Treatment options and teaching strategies in the field of autism spectrum disorders abound, and most if not all dictate that individuals with ASD must ultimately change something about themselves: how they act, how they behave, how they respond to others, the way they think, what they think – how they interact and communicate. Most non-autistic people may not be aware of – nor acknowledge the courage it takes for children and adults on the spectrum to respond to a teacher’s or parent’s unquestioned expectations that they change something as basic as their natural way of interacting and communicating. On top of that, students more often than not, experience our teaching objectives and “their” educational goals as random, or even nonsensical demands.

We first must recognize that with the autism spectrum comes a different style of communication and social understanding – different from the widespread mainstream style of communication and social understanding that most (non-autistic) teachers, therapists, and family members are familiar with – and therefore automatically and unconsciously expect. Many of these unconscious expectations are based on assumptions about communication – assumptions that emerge from a non-autistic point of view.

I am proposing a broad, truly inclusive, and arguably more courageous, approach. As its foundation, I ask non-spectrum communication partners – the family member or friend, teacher or therapist, to examine their assumptions about interaction and communication, and then be willing to make changes in their natural and automatic way of interacting and communicating – just as they expect their student or child on the spectrum to change. For my audiences of teachers, I have distilled a few simple guidelines to improve mutual communication in order to fine-tune their teaching style in an autism-friendly manner.

Consider the notion that miscommunication and misunderstanding can result from a mismatched style of communicating – and finally, that all of us are responsible when desiring improved communication, interaction, and a positive educational environment for our students on the spectrum. This is true whether in a relationship with a family member, or in the classroom with teachers or peers, or in treatment with a therapist. In order to reach through these differences and meet the other in a place of clarity, ease, and understanding, each communication partner must adapt or modify at least some parts of his or her automatic way of communicating.

Teaching style is informed by how we communicate, interact, and provide instruction, as well as how we understand and interpret our student’s behavior. In its broadest and most complete sense, our teaching style is what defines and sets the educational environment of our classrooms. I propose to teachers, therapists, friends and family members who desire to better understand and relate to their communication partner on the spectrum, that they adopt a specific set of “new agreements” for communicating. These new agreements are guidelines consisting of modifications in communication, interaction, and therefore teaching style. The beauty of the guidelines I propose is that all of them can be described as win-win whether they are suggested for the student with ASD or the non-autistic teacher, therapist or family member. All communication partners benefit from every guideline.  A sample of some of the “new agreements” to be kept by teachers and therapists, family members and friends of individuals on the spectrum, are discussed below:

  1. Wait. Don’t expect (or insist on) immediate responses from your student/child. Many children and adults on the autism spectrum struggle at some time or another, to differing degrees, with incomplete understanding when the information they are given is purely verbal. Even for those whose speech is highly developed, listening comprehension is often compromised. For many, it takes time to process what they are hearing, making it difficult to respond in the moment, as typically expected. If your communication partner on the spectrum avoids conversations, or if one of both of you become frustrated when trying to communicate, or if the same discussion reoccurs day after day, this could be one of the reasons why. An added obstacle to your ASD communication partner’s ability to process and respond to you during conversation is their current level of anxiety. Individuals with ASD explain that a heightened anxiety dramatically affects their ability to comprehend spoken language – as well as their ability to truly express themselves through the spoken word. It is compounded by the well-documented fact that children and adults with ASD function daily with a higher level of anxiety than most of their neurotypical peers. Your student’s lack of response, delayed response during conversation, or reoccurring and unresolved topics, can lead to confusion and misunderstanding on your part. You may mistakenly conclude that their silence means that you are being ignored, or that he or she must be uncooperative, stubborn, or angry, and therefore rudely refusing to interact with you. You may assume that he “is not listening” to you. The possibilities for misunderstanding abound.

Or, your communication partner may habitually respond with the same phrase, time after time. Your student probably has learned that he or she is supposed to answer when spoke to, resulting in his or her automatic response – which may not really reflect a true thought or feeling. Typical routine responses are phrases such as: “I don’t know,” “Okay,” “I’m not sure,” “You betcha,” “If you insist,” or something that appears to him or her to be the “right” answer.

One of the most distressing consequences from expecting or insisting on an immediate verbal response from your communication partner with ASD is that you run the risk of forcing him or her to say something – anything – to complete the interaction. In a sense, you are teaching your student that it is more important to say something that sounds plausible – but is personally meaningless – than to really think about the topic, identify his or her own truth, and subsequently express it to others. By waiting patiently without pressuring your communication partner with ASD, you will change your role in the non-communicative routine. Give him more time; more time than you think is needed. Don’t repeat or rephrase the question. Allow the quiet in which he or she can more easily process the information and find his or her own words that accurately reflect what is true. If you find it difficult to wait without talking, try counting silently to yourself. This will give you something to do while you wait….but simply be quiet. Give him time to process the information and find the words that accurately reflect what is true.

If your student is feeling anxious or overwhelmed, or slipping in to a routine, meaningless response, you could suggest a future time when the discussion could be continued. Add it to the day’s checklist of events by writing it in the daily schedule; or add it to the weekly calendar when the topic can be revisited. You can also try using one or more of the written strategies described in my presentations and books as an alternative or an adjunct to talking.

  1. Speak literally and concretely. Avoid hinting and indirectness. Say what you mean and mean what you say. Less “chat” is better. “The notion of implied meaning is the root of misunderstanding,” (Eric Parslow) Children and adults on the spectrum rely on precision, accuracy, and clarity of language which is free of ambiguity, implied, or hidden meaning. Anything other than that may create confusion and misunderstanding, while raising anxiety. It is autism-friendly – respectful and considerate to those with ASD – to communicate in a literal and concrete manner, even though many neurotypical communicators may consider such a direct manner too blunt or impolite. When you are feeling nervous, insecure, or uncomfortable talking about a topic, you probably run the risk of “beating around the bush” and being unintentionally obscure. At these times, be vigilant! The very moment you are introducing a difficult issue or a topic that feels awkward, is the moment to remind yourself of this guideline. For examples of communicating clearly about “difficult subjects”, see my book Understanding Death and Illness and What they Teach About Life: An Interactive Guide for Individuals with Autism or Asperger’s and their Loved Ones, Future Horizons, 2008. Speak (and write) clearly, calmly saying exactly what is to be communicated. By keeping this agreement, you will be assured that what your student heard is more likely to match what you intended to say. It is truly a respectful way to communicate; and appreciated by those not on the autism spectrum, too!
  1. Provide information. Do not assume that your student “knows” what you think “everyone knows.” From the point of view of a person with autism, there are countless situations, events, and circumstances that simply make no sense. The underlying rationale of a great number of the most well respected strategies recommended to teacher and parents of children with ASD is to clarify, define, and provide information. Most adults with ASD, as well, greatly appreciate knowing the specifics, reasons, and explanations for what is happening or going to happen at home, in relationships, and at work. Remember that most events involve common assumptions based on widespread typical social perceptions.

Strive to be a safe person from whom your student is assured of getting clear and direct information. Provide relevant details and critical background facts about the topic of discussion. Together with your student, refer to dictionaries, encyclopedias, and reference websites that supply definitions, facts and general information. By looking up information together (including meanings of words) and researching information about the current topic of conversation, both communication partners will be assured that they are actually talking about the same thing. Remember the rallying cry of Carol Gray and Social Stories™. Abandon All Assumptions!

  1. Help your student’s self-expression. Provide tools; paper, pen, computer keyboard, and/or Communication Forms to facilitate authentic communication. Often is it just plain easier for your communication partner on the spectrum to identify what he or she honestly thinks or feels with the support of visual methods to aid communication. This is true for adolescents and adults, as well as for children. Experiment courageously with pen, paper, and computer keyboard to see if and when these communication tools allow greater ease, encourage earnest self-awareness, and help to assure genuine communication. “Communication Forms” are multiple-choice and/or fill-in-the-blank lists to engage the communicator and support self-knowledge by inviting him or her to discover and then indicate what is personally true. I call them “Communication Forms” because after filling them out, the word “communication” serves as a reminder to share the information with someone. These forms help the autistic communicator connect with others by making it easy to share their personal thoughts and structure further interaction. Hundreds of examples of Communication Forms can be found in books by Catherine Faherty.
  1. Realize that the autistic style of communicating is different from – not inferior nor superior to – the widespread, familiar communication style that you and most neurotypical teachers/therapists/parents expect. The underlying idea behind the “new agreements” that I propose is to recognize your ASD communication partner’s uniqueness as something to understand, rather than judge; to cooperate with, rather than resist; and to respect, rather than extinguish. Recognize that your own communication style is affected by your way of thinking, and how you interpret your experiences. This is one of the ways you and your communication partner are the same – both styles of communication emerge from how each of you think. The differences in your student’s cognition, in his or her thinking, is the reason you may sometimes be puzzled by what you interpret as unexpected behavior and communication quirks. It’s not wrong. It’s another style of thinking and communicating – different, in some ways.

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Next I propose a corresponding set of  “agreements” for autistic communicators. Depending on the age, skills, and degree of self-awareness, the following five guidelines are suggested to individuals with ASD. For teachers and parents of young students on the spectrum, these suggestions are actually guidelines to work toward with the young person; ideas for the non-autistic adult to consider as the child grows. However for adults on the autism spectrum, these guidelines suggest further study – options to consider when improved mutual communication is desired.

  1. Try to express yourself to your communication partner; your family member or friend, teacher, students, therapist, client, employer or employee. Relationships grow stronger when people feel connected to one another. With the help of a trusted person, identify who your most important communication partner(s) are. A way to feel connected to one another is by expressing oneself to your communication partner, and listening when he or she expresses himself. What does it mean to “express yourself?” It means to give information by telling or writing about ones thoughts, ideas, needs, fears, hopes, dreams, questions, beliefs, preferences, and/or other things. Teachers, family members, friends, and others do not automatically know what a person thinks, knows, or feels. Sometimes they may make good guesses, but they may guess wrong. They do not know for sure what you think, know, or feel, unless they are told.

Although people often express themselves by talking to one another, there are other methods of communication. Here is a quick list of other methods of communication as alternatives to a typical conversation. You can ask a question; take time to think and respond in a few minutes; respond later; have a “computer conversation”; email; text; take turns writing notes back and forth with pen and paper; and/or ask for a Communication Form.

Self-knowledge is an important part of expressing yourself to others, because you have to know “who you are” and “what’s inside” your mind and feelings – in order to know what to express. Self-knowledge is a life-long process for all people. Self-knowledge includes knowing your preferences, strengths, skills, talents, needs, and vulnerabilities. Self-knowledge includes knowing what happiness means to you, and what you believe in. Self-knowledge includes knowing what it means for you to live a good life, and how to be a part of a community. Self-knowledge includes knowing when you need help and when to more information – to advocate for yourself. Because ASD is one thing that makes up who you are, self-knowledge also includes learning more about the autism spectrum. Many people learn more by reading books written by authors on the autism spectrum, and by non-autistic authors who care about and work in respectful partnership with people on the autism spectrum. Many people learn more about themselves by meeting and communicating with other people with ASD, either in person or on-line. 

  1. Try to ask for help when needed. Asking for help is an integral part of “self-advocacy.” Help means “assistance doing or understanding something.” Every person in the world needs help sometimes. Asking for help is an important part of communicating. Offering help to others is part of being in a relationship. We are all interdependent. This means that all people are a part of a family or classroom or school or a particular neighborhood, community, workplace, and in the largest sense, the human race and all of life. We need each other. Wise people say this about life: “We are all in this together.” Because of this, it is natural to depend on others for certain aspects of life. Different people need others for different things. Interdependence is a fact of life that can lead to connections between people. Needing each other builds community. Learning about self-advocacy can be an interesting and valuable study. This author offers suggestions in her books and workshops covering the topic of “self-advocacy.”
  1. Say “thank-you” or write “thank you notes” after receiving help from your communication partner, or when receiving something else from him or her. Saying thank you is an expression of gratitude. Gratitude means appreciating things, people, opportunities and events, including the small everyday experiences that make up daily life. The act of honestly saying “thank you” usually creates good feeling. Feeling and expressing gratitude may help people feel emotionally closer to each other. Most people feel good when they feel appreciated and are thanked. Feeling good may help your communication partner feel closer to you. Your connection with people you care about may strengthen when you feel gratitude and express it to them.

Scientists are discovering that feeling grateful may also help increase a person’s own sense of well-being. Research shows that a person who feels grateful and says “thank you” feels better. Scientists are currently researching the connection between people who feel and express gratitude, with that person’s own level of happiness. More information about this topic can be found in the field of Positive Psychology in the books of Martin Seligman, Ed Diener, Robert Biswas-Diener, Sonja Lyubomirsky, and other psychologists. Saying “thank you” is a simple, but powerful act.

  1. Others may have different thoughts, ideas, and opinions than yours. This is natural. A first step in understanding your communication partner better is to ask about his or her thoughts, ideas, and opinions. This will help you know and understand your communication partner better. People are individuals. The dictionary defines individual as a “single human being as distinct from a group, class, or family.” Each individual has his or her own experiences in life, which result in developing distinct and sometimes different opinions while growing up. Parents, other family members, teachers, classmates, friends, neighbors, supervisors and co-workers all may have their own distinct opinions. This is natural.

It is natural for many people, including people on the spectrum, to assume that their communication partner (family member, friend, teacher, etc.) has or should have the same thoughts, feelings, and/or opinions as they do. In fact, you may think for sure that your communication partner has the same thoughts, ideas, feelings, and opinions as you do. If this is the case, you may want to find out for sure. A first step in knowing your communication partner better, is to find out his or her thoughts, ideas, feelings, and opinions.

Sometimes a person guesses what another person is thinking or feeling based on the other person’s actions, words, or what is known about their personal history. However these are only guesses, and they may not be accurate. Asking your communication partner about his or her thoughts and ideas can be the first step in knowing him or her better. This can be accomplished best by talking or writing.

  1. Realize that the natural autistic communication style is in some ways different from – not inferior nor superior to – the more widespread non-autistic style of communicating. Most people who are on the autism spectrum say that as they grew up they felt different from their peers in ways beyond the typical differences others seemed to experience. They may have grown up in the time period when there was no awareness or media coverage, magazine articles, books, websites, or films about ASD or with autistic characters. As recently as the late 1990’s, the general public rarely heard about autism, and it was foreign territory for most schoolteachers. Even now, young people whose ASD has been discovered may not always be provided with accurate, judgment-free information about the spectrum and what it means to them and the other people in their lives. The media has up to now focused on how to cure “the autism epidemic” and puts much less attention on how to live a good life with autism. With so much attention on viewing autism as a problem, it is not wonder that a person on the spectrum may feel that he or she is inferior to the larger group of non-autistic people. The truth is that each group has their own style of communication. There are similarities and there are differences in each style, because there are similarities and differences in the ways we think and experience the world. One way is not better nor worse than the other. Mutual communication can improve when we remember that thinking differently and communicating differently from one another is natural.

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Of course, not all misunderstanding or classroom difficulties will be eliminated by these “new agreements” I propose. However if teachers, therapists, and family members follow these straightforward guidelines and their practical strategies, the chances of miscommunication and misunderstanding – on both sides – will greatly decrease. Communication clarity and classroom success will increase. Self-knowledge and self-advocacy will emerge. It is a place to start. My hope is that mutual understanding and authentic communication will flourish in your classroom, home, workplace, and communities.

Background information, in-depth study, and related ready-to-use teaching and communication strategies can be found in these books by Catherine Faherty:

  • Autism…What Does It Mean To Me? Future Horizons, 2014
  • Understanding Death and Illness and What They Teach About Life, Future Horizons, 2008 (Awarded the Autism Society of America Literary Work of the Year 2009)
  • Communication: What Does It Mean To Me? Future Horizons, 2010 (Much of this article are excerpts from this book.)