Autism is a disorder characterised by difficulties in social communication and interaction. People with autism tend to have trouble understanding the natural rhythmic give and take of conversation and often don’t fully understand facial or body cues. Depending on where your child is on the spectrum, they may be either entirely non-verbal (only communicating through body or sign language) or highly verbal and able to describe things in great detail. This article will give you some tips on how to communicate better with your autistic loved ones.
There are 2 types of communication: imperative and declarative.
Imperative communication consists of commands, requests, or orders. When you ask someone to make a choice or give you an answer of some kind, you are communicating imperatively.
How old are you?
What colour is this?
Put your shoes on now please
What did you do this weekend?
Often when you meet somebody for the first time this kind of small talk is routine. Imperative conversation is like a game of catch, with one person throwing out a request and the other person standing by to receive it before throwing another request back. However, autistic children are not very good at this metaphorical game of catch and such communication might make them feel like they are being put on the spot, which may cause them to withdraw from the conversation. If you would like to naturally pull your child out into conversation and be more compliant, declarative communication is far more effective.
Declarative communication consists of statements. If you observe people who are good at communicating with children, they usually talk to them about shared experiences or observations. They narrate whatever is happening around them, so the flow of conversation is very natural and does not have a pointed aim. If imperative communication is like playing catch, declarative communication is like working on a painting together; each person adds their own colour and vision to the canvas. The point of declarative communication is to not put the onus of the conversation on the child but to equally carry the conversation forward together. Declarative communication works for both verbal and non-verbal autistic children; verbal children will be more likely to open up and get drawn into the conversation while non-verbal ones will engage with you more. Some examples to help you distinguish between both modes of communication are given below:
Declarative: We’re putting on our shoes now (observation)
Imperative: Put on your shoes please (command)
Declarative: Let’s walk to the playground (mutual experience)
Imperative: Do you want to go to the playground? (making the child decide)
Declarative: We are going fast (narration)
Imperative: Want to go faster? (request)
Declarative: I’m so hungry/tired (sharing an emotion)
Imperative: Do you think you’re hungry now?/ You’re tired aren’t you? (expects a reply back from the child)