The Autistic Experience:
Communication on its Own Terms
One of the most outstanding and defining aspects of classic autism is the delay or total absence of typical human communication development, with vocal channels usually the most adversely effected (DeVito 9). Many nuances of the human information processes that are necessary for successful communication—such as perception, encoding/decoding capabilities, as well as self-identity and social awareness– are malfunctioning or not present in the autistic individual. Using brain-scanning and other techniques, recent researchers have been able to identitfy key areas of the autistic brain—particularly those involving communication and social skills—that are physically different from those of typical development.
My son was diagnosed with autism at 21 months. Typical of classic autism, he had no speech and displayed other core symptoms of autism—such as perseverative behavior (the repetition of certain actions over and over—with my son it was jumping and rewinding certain movie videos ) as well as an apparent lack of social identity or cognition—i.e. salutations, eye contact, pointing, etc. As with many autistics, my son also had problems understanding and using his body in the context of space and in relationships with others; for example, until very recently-he would use my arm to retrieve something or to initiate an action—such as pointing. Arie (my son) does point on his own now—however, he does so erratically. Autistic author Donna Williams says, “Autism…results in impairments of socialization, communication and imagination…It is pervasive developmental disability affecting recognition and comprehension including proprioception, kinesthetic sense, sense of self and other visualization, sequencing, synthesis, analysis and retrieval” (196-99).
The all-encompassing impairments found in autism suggest a very exclusive form of intercultural communication–with its own unique and extremely subtle communication properties (DeVito 23). For example, although my son can say single or two-word phrases, (usually in connection with his needs/desires being met—such as when he’s hungry) they are often garbled or incomplete( to illustrate–he says ‘froni’ for ‘Beefaroni’ and ‘crain’ for Nutragrain,)—requiring both a familiarity and experience with his ‘culture’ to interpret and effectively decode his messages.
The process of typical communication—the act of simultaneously encoding/decoding messages ( DeVito 6) is terribly difficult for autistic people; In the case of my son, he seems better at decoding –his role as receiver much more apparent than his role as source. The basic problem seems to be with the processing of various types of sensory stimuli. All of the stimuli–purposeful communication as well as noise—penetrating all of the senses, are amplified and jumbled—making even the simplest interpretation of a given environment practically unachievable, and a sensory overload, inevitable. Noted autistic author/lecturer Temple Grandin speaks from first-hand experience:
My hearing is like having a sound amplifier set on maximum loudness. My ears are like a
microphone that picks up and amplifies sound…I pulled away when people tried to hug
me, because being touched sent an overwhelming tidal wave of stimulation through my
body…the effect on my nervous system was overwhelming. One autistic man stated that
touching was not painful, but it was overwhelming and confusing. (31)
The deficiency of the ability to separate and direct stimuli/information into the correct area of the brain has a devastating effect on all forms of perception-thereby thwarting typically effective communication. The skewed perception (and resulting response) on the part of autistics naturally creates a much higher noise/signal ratio (DeVito 10) –as a result, the ability to separate and decode a given message is particularly impaired.
Further, much of the multipurpose nature of human communication (DeVito 19) is inherently weak or non-existent in autistic individuals. The motivational aspects of communication run counter with autism’s core asocial tendencies; therefore, neither the ‘helping/befriending, consoling’ nor the ‘establishing/maintaining relationships’ motives are rarely present. The motivation to acquire/increase knowledge may apply—depending on where the individual considered falls on the autism spectrum: higher-functioning autistics show a remarkable desire/ability to accumulate and retain vast sums of data; lower-functioning may also possess this ability—but their lack of communication makes ascertaining this difficult. The strongest and most fully-developed motive for autistics is that of sensory gratification and pleasure; however, under the same heading is the need/desire for imaginative play-which most autistic children lack. The desire to escape also falls in this category—and escaping or withdrawing into one’s self is another core symptom of autism—so its applicability is valid. The aforementioned sensory gratification captures the very essence of autism—it is what most autistics seek as a release from the dysfunctional hold of sensory overloading.
Further, DeVito speaks of the “ambiguity present in all communication”—in autistics, this ambiguity is both overwhelming and stifling, making typical communication always difficult– and usually impossible.
Continuing, as stated previously, the trouble for autistic individuals lies in specific regions of the brain. Time‘s Claudia Wallis reveals the anatomy of an autistic brain, which shows that “…the amygdala is…enlarged. This area plays a role in sizing up threats in the environment and in emotion and social behavior…The hippocampus is about 10% larger than normal. This area is vital to memory…this structure becomes enlarged because autistic children rely on memory to interpret situations that most people process elsewhere” (45-6). Similarly, autistic children utilize atypical communication channels-as both vocal and auditory channels often malfunction, they come to rely more on their visual and olfactory channels— and to what Temple Grandin refers to as “Thinking in Pictures” (31). Ultimately, the conflict is in how autistic children’s brains are wired. There is an abnormality in the distribution of the connecting nerve fibers (white matter) linking different parts of the brain ( Wallis 46). Further, according to the Courchesne Center for Autism Research, “We are also concentrating on the cerebellum…traditionally thought to only play a role in motor behavior, is now known to be involved in numerous sensory and cognitive processes.”
Most classic autistics are fairly non-verbal. Those who can speak often use echolalia (a seemingly mechanical repetition of words or phrases just spoken by another) which–historically denigrated as mindless parroting—is now thought to be a possible language-learning tool. Barry Prizant describes two forms of echolalia:
Immediate echolalia appears to tap into the person’s short term memory for auditory input.
It may be used with no intent or purpose or may have a very specific purpose for the
individual….knowing the person very well would appear to be the key to understanding
their specific use of immediate echolalia….Delayed echolalia appears to tap into long-
term auditory memory and for this reason, may be a different phenomenon from
immediate echolalia…” (463-68).
Delayed echolalia involves the memorization (and recitation) of long strings of information—and can sometimes be indicative of a genius/savant intellect.
Finally, various therapies and educational models offer different treatments and methods for calming and reaching the autistic child; however, there are a few basic strategies common to most of them. Probably the most crucial and mutually agreed-upon idea is that of early intervention. Author and therapist Gail Gillingham states, “New (brain) synapses …never again form at the same rate as they did in childhood. The brain will not be able to master new skills or rebuild connections…as easily as it did during childhood. Effective early intervention limits the amount of time that it is spent in ‘shutdown,’ and maximizes experience which allows optimal brain development” (94-5). Other useful ideas include reaching/teaching through key communication channels—i.e. visual and olfactory–using pictures and repetition. Also effective are short phrases—clearly spoken without the clutter of extra words or noise, and a familiar, structured routine with as little visual or auditory distractions as possible.
In conclusion, one of the core symptoms of classic autism is its lack of typical human communication. Certain brain anomalies, such as excess white matter and erratically-wired nerve connections, adversely affect the way in which autistic individuals process stimuli—resulting in atypical communication development. Eschewing the social motives of usual human communication, the motivation for autistic communication is primarily that of sensory gratification. Further, autistics rely more on their visual and olfactory channels—and less on their vocal and auditory for communication. Lastly, research shows that early intervention is necessary for improving social and cognitive development in autistic children; and by using structured repetition, pictures and short, succinct messages a form of intercultural communication can be achieved.
Courchesne Autism Lab. “Brain Cells.” 15 March 2004 http://www.courchesneautismlab.org/braincell.html.
Devito, Joseph A. Essentials of Human Communication. 5th ed. Boston: Pearson, 2005.
Gillingham, Gail. Autism: A New Understanding. Alberta: Tacit, 2000.
Grandin, Temple. Thinking in Pictures. Doubleday: New York, 1995.
Prizant, Barry M. “Speech—Language Pathologists and Autistic Children. What is Our Role? Part. 1. Assessment and Intervention Considerations.” ASHA Journal 24 (1982): 463-68.
Wallis, Claudia. “Inside the Autistic Mind.” Time. 15 May 2006: 42-51.
Williams, Donna. ” In the Real World.” Journal of the Association for Persons with Severe Handicaps 19.3 (1994): 196-9