Communication in Autism: Do we speak the same language?
By Dr Olga Bogdashina
Difficulties with language and communication are one of the defining features of autism. However, the nature of the language and communication deficits and their role in manifestation of the syndrome remains controversial. Traditionally, language is looked upon as a key prognostic factor in autism and the level of language and communicative competence achieved is seen as a measure of outcome. In the past decades, there has been a shift of attention from language to communication impairments as the fundamental problem. The argument is that both verbal and non-verbal forms of communication are affected, and even if structural language ability is good (in cases of HF autistic individuals and those with Asperger syndrome), communication and the social use of language remain impaired. This approach to communication problems rather than language per se seems quite justifiable. However, it is worth investigating language peculiarities and development in autism from the perspective of different sensory perceptual processes and cognitive styles. Then we can see that people with autism do communicate (though sometimes their attempts to transmit information are unnoticed by their non-autistic communicative partners); they do not lack communicative intent but rather often use unconventional means of communication.
Language is defined as a system of signs that serves as a means of communication and a means of formulating and expressing thoughts. Traditionally, signs in this definition are identified with words. However, though conventional, words are not the only signs that satisfy the criteria of language. The error of mistaking the acoustic/written manifestation of language for language itself leads to misconception that the language is necessarily verbal. The sensory perceptual experience of the world of autistic children differs from that of non-autistic individuals, and their original internal language (as a tool of formulating and expressing thoughts) is consisted of ‘sensory perceptual words’. This ‘language’ becomes central to their intellectual, emotional and social development. It is important to identify each autistic individual’s non-verbal language – which can be visual, tactile, kinaesthetic, etc. – in order to establish a shared means of verbal communication.