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7 steps for better communication with Autistic students

How can we improve our communication and engagement in the classroom with students who have Autism? Rebecca Leek explains more

Autism is often referred to as a communication and interaction difference. Some people say that it is a processing difference or that autistic people receive and perceive things on a slightly different frequency. Autism is a spectrum condition, which means there are as many different versions of autism as there are autistic people. However, one thing that is very common, in terms of what autistic people would like non-autistic people to do better, is a wish that people consider their use of language. For example, it is not always obvious what is being asked or what somebody means when they say something. If you want to do better for autistic people – watch your language.

1. Name first

This sounds simple but requires practice. Sentences are complicated in themselves. If you leave the name to the end, then the key information will be missed. The world is busy and distracting, and so are the thoughts in our heads. If you want someone to listen, make sure they know the instruction is for them. For example:

‘Would you like to put them over there, Ella?’

Ella will not necessarily be listening until she hears her name. It’s too late by then.

Autism Communication Secondary Image

2. Pronouns and thingummies

This is a nightmare. The number of times a friend will be talking to me and I’ll say at the end of quite a lot of talking – I don’t know what you are talking about. It might have been incredibly obvious to someone else, due to some imperceptible cue that I’ve missed. But if you don’t say what you are actually talking about, I’m lost. This is extremely important when you start talking or when you change the subject. 

‘So I’ve organised it all. I’ll meet you there.’

What is the ‘it’, what has been arranged, where is ‘there’? Let’s improve what you said to Ella again:

‘Ella, can you put the books on the desk by the door?’

3. Unnecessary questions

So returning to Ella – Ella who wasn’t listening because you didn’t say her name at the start. Who also didn’t know what you were talking about. Additionally, are you telling her to do something, or are you asking her whether she would like to do it? If you want to tell someone to do something, then please do that.

‘Ella, put the books on the desk by the door.’

In fact, all the swishy polite bits can be extremely unhelpful. For example:

‘I was wondering whether you might like to…’

‘It would be lovely if we could…’

So many words that may be completely unnecessary. Straight and to the point is better. 

4. Gesture

There are different modes of communicating and if this interests you then look up multi-modal communication. A good start is incorporating more gesture into your communication. We return to Ella and the books. Point to the books, and then point to the place you want them to go. If you get into the habit of this, you may find that you start using fewer words. This can be a good thing for someone who processes the world differently. Keep it simple. 

‘Joe. Your coat.’ [Point to the coat on the floor.]

‘On the peg.’ [Point to the peg.] 

‘Hang your coat on the peg.’ [Gesture hanging a coat up.]

5. Maths and meaning shifters

For a non-literacy subject, maths is a minefield for language. There are lots of little words that mean slightly different things. Consider, ‘times the number by two’. You may have been doubling in a maths lesson. Your pupil has shown you that they can double. However, if you suddenly change the wording to ‘times a number by two’ and they stare at you blankly, do not be surprised. You might also say, exasperated, ‘How many times have we done this?’ The word times can mean different things and unless it is explicitly taught in this context, there is going to be a breakdown of understanding.

6. Metaphorical and figurative language

It is a bit of a myth that autistic people and metaphorical language don’t mix. Actually, some people who are autistic are particularly adept at creating metaphor themselves, although often in a slightly unusual, idiosyncratic way. 

It is the case that the meaning of figurative language will not necessarily be obvious and will require a bit more brain power to unravel. For example, if someone says, ‘He necked it,’ you may find that the autistic person starts pondering images of a human with a long neck, or wrapping his neck around the drink. They may also understand the meaning but there will potentially be lots more processing happening. Essentially, these kinds of figurative phrases, which rely on meanings that are not literal, are stickier. They will require unpicking and discussing, which is really good fun if you embrace it.

7. Can you write it?

As your students get older, you might find that they prefer instructions to be written down, rather than given verbally. If you are used to preparing slides and uploading them onto learning platforms then consider how much information you can provide – which will enable the student to work almost autonomously. 

Other students may enjoy the discursive, verbal parts of lessons. That may be the fun part for them, and the part that motivates them – but it is potentially the part of the lesson that creates anxiety for someone who finds interaction less intuitive. Ask yourself, is it always necessary for every student in your class to work in the same way? If they can access the work, on their own, with headphones, slightly separately – is this a problem? We are all different and it is surely that which makes life so interesting.

Find Out More

Rebecca Leek has created two brand new modules, ‘Autism: Past and Present’ and ‘Autism: Taking the Lead’ which explores  what is autism, what is the criteria for diagnosis, and what it’s like to be autistic and how an autism led approach to making our schools healthier environments for autistic people. To find out more, watch the tasters below and click through to view the full module description.

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Tamsin Denley

Author: Rebecca Leek

Rebecca is the Executive Director of Suffolk Primary Headteachers’ Association and has been a primary and secondary SENDCO, Headteacher and Cross School Leader. She has direct and personal experience of autism.

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