Tips for Communicating with Your Sibling on the Autism Spectrum

All sibling relationships can be challenging. Communicating with your sibling on the AS (Autism Spectrum) poses particular challenges for both of you. If you find yourself frustrated because you and your sibling are not communicating well, here are some tips that should help you both. The goal is to help both siblings feel heard, want to communicate, and know that they have the ability to make this happen.

Rachel Reich

Rachel Reich

Use Words Not Just Actions

You may be accustomed to communicating non-verbally, like with facial expressions, body language, inflection, behaviors, and/or omitting behaviors. To many, this may be an effective way to express your feelings, but for a loved one on the spectrum, much or all of these subtleties may be missed or misinterpreted. If you suspect your loved one is not “hearing” you, be sure to ask yourself if you explicitly stated what you wanted them to know (National Autistic Society).

Be Clear

Your loved one may not pick up on all the meanings of people’s words to them. You may think that what you are saying is obvious, but they may not be receiving your meaning. Be as explicit as you can when talking to your AS loved one, especially when talking about emotions. For example, explain “I was angry this morning because _____.” Remember to stick with the literal. Avoid sarcasm, irony, figurative language, rhetorical questions, idioms, or exaggerations (National Autistic Society). For example, don’t say “Let your hair down,” say “Take time to relax.” Clarify the meaning of the words you are using. When your sibling doesn’t understand the meaning of words you are using, let them know how you define these words. For example, you might explain something like, “When I say that may be ‘impractical,’ I mean it may not be possible because there is not enough time.”

Be Patient

If you ask a question, wait for their answer. They might need a little more time to absorb and process information before giving you their response (May Institute). If it seems like your sibling finds it hard to process what you are saying, slow down and simplify your speech. Additionally, be aware of the environment. It might be harder for your sibling to process information if it’s too noisy or crowded.

Be Sensitive

Your sibling on the AS might be accustomed to criticism for the way they communicate, which can leave them hurt, defensive, and/or desensitized due to repetition and perceived failure. You may appear judgmental or accusatory even if you aren’t trying to be. If you are asking them to communicate in a different way or challenging something they said, focus on making sure you let your sibling know these are your feelings, and not an attack on your sibling’s flaws (Roberson). Importantly, encourage your sibling to say whatever is on their mind. For good communication to happen, your sibling needs to feel that they are in an environment where they feel safe, not judged, and where honesty is valued. Remind yourself that your sibling’s mind is physically and chemically different than that of a neurotypical person. Communication is not hard because either one of you is being “difficult” or “stubborn.” You have unique neurodiversities, and because of this, the way in which you speak with each other will be unique.

Support Your Sibling’s Communication Skills

So far in this article, you’ve read many ideas of things you can do. Your sibling may be working on (or open to working on) communication practices, too. Talk directly with your sibling about what these skill development areas are or could be, and make an agreement on how you can help. For example, if they are working on emotional regulation or two-way conversations, you may decide on a clear, concrete sentence you can say to them when you detect they are becoming dysregulated or entering a monologue pattern. By this predetermined prompt, they can identify their behavior in the moment and implement their strategies. For example: “I am noticing that you have started to yell;” or “Right now is an example of you speaking for a long time without asking me any questions.”

For more information, email Rachel at rsr267@cornell.edu.

References

May Institute – Tips for Talking to Adults on the Autism Spectrum. http://www.mayinstitute.org/news/acl/asd-and-dd-adult-focused/tips-for-talking-to-adults-on-the-autism-spectrum/

National Autistic Society – Communicating. http://www.autism.org.uk/about/communication/communicating.aspx

Roberson – Communicating Effectively with Your Asperger’s Partner: Five Important Suggestions. http://www.kennethrobersonphd.com/communicating-effectively-aspergers-partner-five-important-suggestions/

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