Years ago, a concerned grandmother asked me for advice in helping her grandson, who was newly diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD.) As I had never met this little boy, I struggled as to give the best “universal” wisdom. It took me just moments to decide the easiest strategy to achieve the greatest results: Keep It Simple (Sweetheart!)
Research has proven that individuals with ASD need a tremendous amount of exposure to spoken language. I would add a qualifier to that statement by saying kids with ASD need a tremendous amount of exposure to meaningful and exact spoken language. In short, the best advice I can give is to say what you mean and mean what you say. Oh, and do it in as few words possible.
Speak in the affirmative. Leave off the frills, and your friend, student, child, or loved one with ASD will receive your message more clearly. For example, instead of telling a child, “Do not run!”, tell him what you wish him to do. “Walk.”
This is great advice for a number of reasons. First, as any elementary teacher will tell you, “Do not run!” leaves any number of alternate travelling options open to a young student. Picture it. “I didn’t run, Mrs. Shumate! I hopped! “ (Glided, soared, leaped, flew... you get the point.) Second, people tend to hear the first or last word of a direction most clearly. In the example above, you still end up with a child who is running.
Too much explanation will wear down the processing skills of most people with ASD. Speak and wait. Then wait some more, if you need to.
In a follow-up conversation with the concerned grandmother I mentioned, she reported the most amazing results using this simple strategy. She raved about her grandson’s improved ability to understand. Knowing what I do about the innate intelligence present in most individuals on the spectrum, I simply smiled and kept my true thoughts to myself. Inside, however, I firmly believed that the grandson’s skills were strong all along, it was the neurotypical adults in his life who had gained the “improved communication skills.”
Recently, I did a podcast. One of the individuals I was talking too, rambled to the point that I had to completely stop and say, ‘I can’t do this.’ Words. They can sound like a buzz. There can be so many that someone with Autism doesn’t hear any of them. By the time this person had said one sentence, I lost it trying to listen to his next. He went from topic to topic and I was still trying to process the first.
When I teach my social studies classes, at IDEA House, I teach the way I learn. A teacher, in tenth grade asked me why I was the only one not taking notes. “I don’t know,” I responded. I really didn’t know how to answer her, but I do know that I couldn’t understand a word she said when she taught. My homework consisted of several hours of reading out loud, into an old-school tape recorder. I would play it back, breaking each sentence down into very short phrases so I could better understand the material. When I teach, I put very specific words and phrases on the board. Short, but direct.
No confusion with lots of room for processing.
What I would have done for a teacher to recognize this. I knew what I needed, but it was something I had to teach myself. I have always had to find ways to learn because not learning, was not an option. I wanted that grade. I was determined.
When I’m in a conversation, I do fine with one person. The more people that are added and the more buzz in the room, the MORE I do not hear. Words become floating thoughts with no semblance of order, the more someone talks or the more people in the conversation..
A person with Autism might simply not understand. It is not that they are being noncompliant. When I was in school, I would get accused of copying, but I was only simply trying to see what the directions were. Keep it simple! Be direct! Be specific!