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It is common for many people to use too much language when talking to, or giving instructions to individuals with autism. It is a trap that all of us can fall into quite easily without realising it. There is also a common misconception that we often assume that some individuals on the autistic spectrum can understand a lot more than they actually do. This often happens because an individual with autism may be very verbal and we believe that everything that he is saying, he understands. Some individuals with autism learn a lot of phrases and often use words that they do not understand, but the listener assumes that if they are using the language they must understand it. Another reason we often get a false impression of the true nature of a persons understanding is that they appear able to follow instructions. However, some individuals become adept at following contextual clues and have a memory of certain routines, and they are not necessarily following a verbal instruction.
It is important that we have an awareness of our own language level when we do not know the language level of others. In these cases, we should always keep our language simple. Assessing language levels and capabilities is often very difficult and is best carried out by a speech and language therapist/pathologist who can observe the individual in a range of communication situations and environments. It is also important to make sure that the individual with autism does not have a hearing impairment which is preventing him from actually hearing the commands.
The Minimal Speech Approach
The minimal speech approach focuses on using one or two key words rather than a sentence. For instance, a teacher could say to a child with autism “Right, get your coat and boots and let’s go out to the sandpit”. The child may not understand any of this and completely ignore the teacher, or may just follow what others are doing. Alternatively the teacher could take the child to their coat, hand it to the child and say “coat”. The child could then be taken to his boots, and the teacher would say “boots”, as she helps the child put them on. This may seem like a rather long-winded way for a busy teacher to show the child what he needs to do, but in time it should show positive benefits. When communicating with children who have severe difficulties understanding speech, we must communicate whatever is the focus of their attention. So if we are putting their boots on, we say “boot”. This way the child can start to relate objects or events with particular words. In the longer term, the teacher will not have to physically show the child the objects, she can just name them and the child will recognise the word. When using language it is also important to avoid using abstract language and terms. Initially it is probably best to stick with nouns (ball, cup) and verbs (run, swim), rather than use adjectives (big, old), prepositions (in, behind), pronouns (he, mine), or time concepts (tomorrow, this afternoon).
The minimal speech approach can be used with adults or children with a severe communication delay. Just using single words can often be much more effective than sentences. There is now evidence to show that simplifying language not only helps individuals with autism have a better understanding of language, but also has positive effects on behaviour and encourages more interaction and responses. Behavioural difficulties often occur because individuals do not understand what is happening or what other people are expecting. By simplifying language, inappropriate or challenging behaviour may be avoided. Adding further cues alongside single word commands can also facilitate understanding. Using visuals, a sign or gesture, or objects alongside the speech can give the individual further cues. It is also worth noting, that if you use visuals etc, still use single words, as a longer sentence can distract from the cue.
For more information about autism and other communication difficulties, and ideas and strategies to help communication, see our Resources, or for specific fact-sheets with helpful hints about Autism go to the Autism Downloads section.