High functioning person with an autism spectrum disorder: a "tourist" in his native country

Beverly Vicker

How can parents explain to relatives, neighbors, teachers, or service agency personnel that their son or daughter with an autism spectrum disorder has a significant communication problem? People often hear the high-functioning individual using good articulation, speaking in sentences, and engaging in comments on selective topics. The parents may be asked, “How can there be a communication problem?” Parents, when explaining their son’s or daughter's disability, face a dilemma. Should the parent explain using terms such as difficulties with “pragmatics,” “social communication,” or “comprehension of the subtleties of daily communication discourse”? Probably not. Such descriptions do not explain to people how to interact with a person with an autism spectrum disorder. Parents really want people to feel comfortable about communicating with their son or daughter, and want to make the interaction more mutually successful. Parents may find that people will better understand the situation if information is presented within a familiar frame of reference. Thus, an analogy might help someone understand whereas a presentation of facts and explanations may not.

Suppose parents describe their son or daughter's problem as very similar to that of a tourist visiting the United States from a foreign country. Upon arrival to the United States, a tourist would find that he does not understand some of the cultural and linguistic aspects of our daily lives. He may not understand the colorful and sometimes questionable slang used by our teenagers. He could be confused, for instance, by slang such as “awesome.” He might want to talk about subjects on which he is very knowledgeable. Unfortunately people may talk about topics he does not understand or about which he does not have a point of reference. Conversing about the Chicago Cubs, the reality Survivor shows on TV, or the main issues of the most recent local, state, or national election might be difficult for him, and he would probably find these topics somewhat uninteresting. Until he had a better command of the language and various topics of conversation, he might avoid situations which required engaging in chit chat or small talk.

In many ways the high functioning articulate person with an autism spectrum disorder is just like this tourist. He does not quite understand the various subtleties of his native language and is unaware of some of the cultural information implicit in our daily communication. But, unlike the tourist, the person with an autism spectrum disorder may not know that he does not understand or may not realize the extent to which he is missing common information. The tourist may ask questions or develop hypotheses about what he thinks people are talking about. He may check his hunches with a familiar communication partner. In most cases, however, the person with an autism spectrum disorder probably would not engage in these confirmation or clarification activities.

So what can parents tell people to help them understand their child with an autism spectrum disorder and to help them be more successful in daily interactions with him/her? Parents can simply advise them to do what they would do with tourists but with some customization for their particular child;

* Provide practical advance information for friends, neighbors and relatives. Tell them the child with ASD may only take one turn in a conversation or may only be responsive to yes-no or one word response questions. He or she may eventually learn to do more.
* Share information about the child’s favorite topics or interests; he or she will be less interested in the neighbor/friend’s topics and more receptive to their overtures if it is on his/her terms. (Mention how to manage a monologue, however, in case one occurs).
* Suggest that the friend/neighbor say the child’s name and pause before beginning to talk. The act of calling the child’s name is to alert him or her that someone will be directing a message his/her way. The pause provides potential time to shift his/her attention.
* Since typical adults tend to talk fast and often in a disjointed fashion, tell the neighbors/friends/relatives to talk a little slower than one would to a child of your son or daughter’s age just like they would do with an adult tourist.
* Remind neighbor/friends that the child will not have the background/cultural/social knowledge of his age mates.
* Advise them to explain things in short 4-7 word concrete sentences rather than use long, complex utterances, slang, figurative language, double meaning or ambiguous/humorous comments.
* Suggest that when possible, to use pictures, objects, or gestures to add clarification to a verbal message.
* Alert them to watch for body language, physical signs of anxiety, and conversational content that may suggest the child has difficulty processing the messages.
* Encourage the friend/neighbor to allow the individual with an autism spectrum disorder sufficient time to process the message and formulate a response before expecting an answer or changing topics.

The challenge for friends/neighbors/relatives will be to remember to use some or all of the suggestions and at the same time engage in a natural interaction. Parents, through their own interactions with their sons and daughters, may need to discretely model appropriate interactions so that relatives, neighbors, or friends can more easily understand what he or she needs to do. Many individuals who are high-functioning desire interaction, but they need some adaptations by their communication partners in order to be successful. Parents want their children to be successful at communicating with others. The latter may just need some general information to make it happen. So, give them a copy of this article.

Vicker, B. (2009). The high functioning person with an autism spectrum disorder: A “tourist” in his native country. Bloomington, IN: Indiana Resource Center for Autism.

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