Communication issues are common because most on the spectrum have difficulty reading body language and interpreting facial expressions or tone of voice – and 90% of interpersonal communication is nonverbal. Words can have different meanings depending upon tone and emphasis. This means the person may not understand their boss’s or colleague’s expectations and desires. If they’re around people for any length of time, they will slip up and cross an invisible (to them) boundary, causing offense. Often they never learn what it was they did or said that turned the other person off. While friends may in time come to understand this behavior isn’t intentional, this rarely happens at work.
Those on the autism spectrum often take things at face value and fail to see shades of gray. They tend to be frank and straightforward, and may want to get down to business. They might have difficulty understanding humor and figurative speech. For many, acknowledging, cheerily greeting and saying goodbye to people just doesn’t come naturally.
Other communication issues for those with autism spectrum disorders include taking things literally; they may not be able to tell when someone is joking, and thus take teasing seriously, alienating the teaser. Lack of eye contact is perceived as appearance of dishonesty, boredom, inattentiveness, or rudeness, and can cause misunderstanding, offense or aggression. Many neuro-typical individuals (NTs) intuitively distrust someone who doesn’t look at them directly.
Conversations are tricky. Many find it difficult to approach people and don’t know what to say. They may have trouble separating details from essential points in a conversation, so they may ramble, providing a myriad of details without stating their ideas clearly. Since words are their only method of communication, their words are much more emotionally loaded than for NTs, making it more difficult to accept criticism without getting upset. Often someone on the autism spectrum will keep speaking regardless of the listener’s interest, because they are unaware when their incessant talking becomes annoying and can’t read the signs of impatience on the listener’s face. How does one tell when he is rambling on with too much information? How does one know when it’s her turn to speak?
Here are some techniques to make your communication more effective:
- Try to communicate with people via methods that minimize body language, such as e-mail or telephone.
- Tell people that you have difficulty with nonverbal communication. Most people won’t get it, but some will.
- Let them know they must verbalize EVERYTHING, including their feelings; you just don’t “get” it otherwise. This works with people who understand you and know you well.
- ASK what’s going on; this also works better with those you know well. For example, you could ask, “Do you think I’m angry?” and, if he says yes, reply, “I’m not angry at all. What made you think I was?”
- Realize that you’re not good at anticipating another’s feelings. That way, you can remind yourself to ask follow-up questions in a conversation and to respond with empathy.
- Explain that your face doesn’t always show your true feelings. For example, say, “I have a tendency to look angry when I am not, so I appreciate you seeking clarification.”
- Know when it is better to be less candid and honest. In social or employment situations, it’s often better to dodge questions about such hot button topics as religion and politics in order to avoid conflict. It’s usually best to avoid telling your boss exactly what you think of him or her. Otherwise, you may suffer the consequences.
- Watch and listen to people. For example, if you trust person A but then see that she hangs around with person B, who is definitely a jerk, you may reconsider your decision about putting too much trust in person A. Why is she hanging around with such an idiot? Remember that people you work with often have a hidden agenda. So if you don’t know their motives and don’t understand their relationships, be cautious.
- Small talk is not about content. It’s about sharing a smile and a quick laugh. Listen to others’ small talk and try to figure out what’s appropriate. Stay informed about news and weather, so you can comment on these when they come up.
- If everyone is laughing, laugh with them, even if you didn’t understand the joke.
- Listen carefully.
- Learn active listening skills – this will help you with the subtleties of interpersonal communication.
- Learn to talk about others’ interests, and keep quiet about yours.
- Keep tabs on conversations, making sure not to monopolize the discussion.
- If you’ve been speaking for a few minutes, it’s probably time to stop and give someone else a turn to talk.
- If the other person doesn’t make any comments pertaining to what you’re saying, or if he changes the subject, that may indicate that he/she is either bored or uncomfortable with that topic. This is a clue to change the subject and move on.
- A look to the side may also indicate disinterest, and folded arms may indicate boredom.
- When responding, relate the reply to what the other person said. To change the subject, say something like, “what you said reminded me of…”
- Practice making eye contact during conversations.
- When the other person is talking, look interested. Look at them, but don’t stare. Make short comments, say, “umm, aha,” and nod once in a while.
- When with a group, try to look at each person who’s speaking. Also try to look around and notice others’ reactions. Note facial expressions, hands, and the rest of their body. Is he or she showing interest by nodding his head, looking at you, and responding to what you say? Doing this will help you to be aware of how people respond to your reactions.
- Think twice before speaking to avoid inappropriate comments.
- Learn to decipher the meanings of idioms and figurative speech through rote memory and context. Some have found keeping a notebook of common idioms helpful.
Interpreting body language is very important to interpersonal communication. Learning to read body language is a skill that can be taught. Here are some tips that might help you lean to understand body language:
- To get help in breaking down body language like facial expressions and gestures, enlist your family or close friends for help. Gather a bunch of pictures from magazines having a range of facial expressions with body language (e.g. happy, disappointed, fearful, joyful, annoyed, angry, depressed…). Try to identify the still life. The Artist’s Complete Guide to Facial Expression by Gary Faigin is an excellent book resource for this (amazon.com/Artists-Complete-Guide-Facial-Expression/dp/0823004325).
- Next try the same idea with a video. Turn off the sound and watch the body language. Try to identify different emotions.
- Try your own body language. Practice making faces and looking happy, fearful, or angry.
- Use your voice intonations for different emotions. Learn how to communicate subtle meanings through changes in tone of voice and facial muscles. Ask a friend what emotion he thinks you are trying to communicate by using the same sentence and repeating it with different emotions.
- Watch actors in movies exchange meaningful glances. Notice how they use their eyes. Try to interpret from the context of the situation the meaning of those glances.
- Classes in interpersonal communication sometimes teach body language.
- Acting lessons often teach voice modulation and facial expressions.
Hopefully, you can use at least some of these ideas and techniques to become a better communicator.
Yvona Fast is the author of “Employment for Individuals with Asperger Syndrome or Nonverbal Learning Disability” and 2 other books. She has spoken about these issues at conferences in the US, Poland and Canada. For more information, check out www.wordsaremyworld.com.