World Autism Awareness Week: Understanding Communication in Autism
31 March 2020
Autism is a lifelong condition that affects how people perceive the world around them and interact with others. Autism is a spectrum, which means that different people have different strengths and difficulties. However, autistic people tend to share some qualities, and these include challenges with social interaction and a preference for routine and structure. As a result, autistic people sometimes experience social exclusion, mental health challenges and difficulties in a range of settings including school and the workplace. Crucially, many of these issues arise when other people don’t understand autistic people very well, so we can all work together to be more sensitive of the needs and preferences of people on the autism spectrum. Autistic people often see autism as crucial to who they are; they would not describe being autistic as a disorder; it is a different way of being in the world that can often bring unique perspectives as well as some level of disability in a world that doesn’t always respond to them very positively.
In the Psychology Department at Oxford University, there are several researchers working to understand more about autism. In the long run, we hope our research will have positive impacts for autistic people.
For my PhD work with Professor Dorothy Bishop, I investigated communication. I presented participants with lots of short animations, like the colourful cartoon above! These videos included dialogues, for example:
Person 1: “Shall we sit outside?”
Person 2: “It’s quite cold.”
You’ll note that the second person didn’t explicitly say yes or no. They simply told us about the weather. However, we might infer that they probably don’t want to sit outside. This is what we mean by an implied meaning – something that goes beyond what is explicitly stated. I found that autistic people did not always catch on to the implied meaning or sometimes interpreted it differently to their non-autistic peers. However, most striking was that autistic people reported much less confidence in their interpretations; often they could “get” the meaning, but weren’t sure about it. They seemed to show different communication preferences; they preferred when language was explicit, literal and direct. Of course, communication always happens as part of an interaction. This is important to remember as it is within each person’s power to accommodate the preferences of other people in the conversation, including the preferences of autistic people for literal communication.
I also looked at the links between mental health and communication. I found that the two were strongly linked, but only when communication difficulties were measured by self-report, e.g. by asking people how frequently they experienced certain problems. There was no link between mental health and communication skills measured by a range of formal tests. This is an important message for mental health professionals. Communication difficulties are impacting the mental health of autistic people. However, professionals should not rely on their observations of the person’s communication, as these may not square with the way autistic people experience communication challenges on a day-to-day basis. Instead, we need to ask autistic people about how communication poses barriers for them and impacts their mental wellbeing.
Here are some links if you’re interested in learning more about autism: