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All roads lead to anxiety

Understanding what it means to have a communication disorder in Autism/Asperger's

By Maxine and Daniel

People with ASD often suffer the frustrating experience of being misunderstood. Others act hurt and offended by something they did when no offense was intended. The problem is, our children may get these reactions from people all day long. Communicating is like walking on a minefield--you never know when things are going to blow up in your face. The feeling of living on edge...of waiting to mess up...can cause tremendous anxiety, as can the angry, punitive responses they can elicit all day long.

Not surprisingly, difficulties in communication can contribute significantly to the layers and layers of anxiety that shape our child's experience of the day and of the world.

The thing is, many parents and even more teachers don't really make the connection to or know the relevance of the very real and often devastating communication challenges of bright, verbal kids with ASD.

Let me share what I have learned so far about this key area of autism:

So what does a communication disorder look like in a smart kid whose verbal skills are so sharp he can lawyer you into a corner? Here are some things to consider:

  • Our children misunderstand the main point. This can mean spending hours on an essay and doing poorly in spite of great effort. They don’t KNOW that they’ve misunderstood and are quite shocked and embarrassed to discover the mistake. It can also mean trying to do what parents have asked, missing the intention of the request entirely then getting reprimanded as a result of the misunderstanding.
  • They may interpret language very literally, and when asked to name the shapes on a geometry test, the triangle is Bob, the circle is Mary….
  • They may not hear all of the words that are spoken—attention issues, auditory processing issues, anxiety—all of these can result in children who only receive bits and pieces of what was said, and consequently get the message all wrong.
  • In spite of vocabularies like college professors, some individuals with ASD may have difficulty being true communication partners; that is, exchanging information back and forth. They may not listen to your point of view or information and then adjust their responses accordingly. Essentially, they may monologue, waiting for you to stop talking so they can point out a hole in your argument rather than trying to understand your point of view.
  • Some people with ASD may not be able to tell you what they want--regardless of their impressive vocabularies. They may agree with you when they don’t, say ‘Yes,’ when they mean ‘No’, or decline an offer because they can’t ask questions that would help to reduce the anxiety of the unknown. Basically, they may agree with you just to stop the conversation, make you go away, or prevent conflict.
  • Aspie’s do not like conflict. It can be hard to find the words to defend yourself, for example, when you are being accused of being lazy, rude, or oppositional when you did not intend to communicate those things about yourself and incite such negative opinions. Any time someone with ASD believes someone is angry or disappointed with them, it can be very difficult to find the words to defend yourself.
  • On that note: many people with ASD experience selective mutism or ‘go non-verbal’ in stressful situations. On a personal note, I cannot speak when I am completely overwhelmed with emotion—good or bad. I didn’t say a word for more than 10 minutes when my husband asked me to marry him! It is not uncommon for children with ASD to very quiet in school, and some never utter a word in the school setting.
  • About 7% of communication is verbal—they rest involves things like body language and tone of voice. Those things often need to be taught to those with ASD. If your monotone voice and flat expression make people think you are grumpy or indifferent when you are not, then this is a communication problem. An Aspie may go around all day ticking people off and having no idea why.
  • Similarly, people with ASD may not read the non-verbal communication of others. It is common for children, teens and adults on the spectrum to think no one likes them, everyone is angry, or that they are being teased. Of course, often, our children ARE teased, but can also be true that they don’t understand the ‘trash talk’ that teens boys engage in, and often find it quite devastating. Children may interpret exuberant teachers with big voices as angry educators who are yelling at them all the time. Similarly, they may not read the frustration or exasperation in the voices of their teachers and the child's lack of response to that will be interpreted as disrespectful and intentionally rude.
  • It can take several seconds for someone on the spectrum to respond to a comment, question or command. The delayed response is a barrier to communication—people often think the person with ASD is being very rude or intentionally ignoring them. Neither is true. Slow processing speed may be to blame, and it contributes to challenges in back and forth communication that is so essential for social success.

Improved knowledge of the communication challenges in ASD can lead to better strategies for support and increased opportunities for our children to maintain their dignity. It can reduce misunderstanding in the home and in the classroom, and help our children feel understood and accepted.

When this happens, our children may be less anxious, less defensive, and more likely to be open to the learning that needs to take place to improve their communication skills in all settings.