While you may have seen characters on TV or in the movies who have been described as having Autism or Aspergers Syndrome, you may initially feel unease about encountering or interacting with a real person who has an autism spectrum disorder (ASD). The child or adult may be able to communicate with you fairly well or he or she may exhibit some real challenging forms of communication. Individuals with ASD vary in their ability to consistently and effectively use verbal communication with other people and differ in their ability to understand communication messages addressed to them. About 1/3 of the population with the form of ASD called “autism” never develop sufficient or any verbal skills to meet their daily needs; they must use nonverbal methods of communication such as gestures, manual signs, communication displays, or electronic communication devices.
Regardless of ability level, all individuals with ASD communicate in some fashion. You will feel more comfortable with this diversity once you have more experience with such individuals. A common means of communication, however, regardless of how verbal a person might typically be, is behavioral communication. The person is NOT always choosing to use this method, but rather it is a reaction to a situation or internal need or stress. The person simply may not be able to express a message in words or through any other means about the source of his/her distress at that given time. A whole literature is devoted to easing the stress, teaching better methods of communication, etc. All this article can do is to raise your awareness about behavioral communication and help you recognize that it is a common pattern. Additional training, self study, and guidance from more experienced mentors can support you during the learning process.
“Behavioral communication” is not an abstract term only used by psychologists. Everyone encounters behavioral messages everyday and we have learned to interpret them with varying degrees of ease and accuracy. Every day examples include someone rolling their eyes to suggest disbelief with some comment, tapping fingers on the table in the meeting to amuse oneself while waiting for the boring meeting to end, or someone who keeps looking at his watch during a conversation thereby suggesting that he wants the conversation to be over soon or better yet five minutes before. People with ASD use behavioral messages too but they aren’t always as conventional or subtle.
Messages from people with ASD can differ in intensity and in the form used. Sometimes the message is very common such as a signal for hunger but other times it is more unique such as being upset that a routine has been broken and the person protests by screaming and getting upset.
Sometimes you will have to “think outside the box”, i.e., think differently than usual in terms of interpretation of the behavioral communication of the person with ASD. The important thing is to learn to think “What might the real message be?” instead of reacting to the behavior by looking for a way to punish the individual with ASD. As many professionals and parents have learned the hard way, punishing doesn’t solve the problem or teach the person with ASD to communicate better; it is merely a reaction to what is observed. The underlying reason for the person sending behavioral messages will probably still be there and may resurface in another way or at another time.
Only when you are more familiar with particular individuals will you be able to make a reasonable guess about the meaning of some behavioral communication. One has to consider the difficulty of a task, sensory issues, and other things. A novice will not have that type of knowledge yet and others should be able to help. But some practice at looking at example behaviors can help you to develop a frame of reference about looking beyond what you see.
Let’s look at three scenarios and examine potential interpretations.
Scene #1 A young adult paces the living room of his group home. He repeatedly slaps himself in the face. Periodically, he vigorously bangs his head against the wall.
Scene #2 A middle aged man in a workshop for people with disabilities sits working at an assembly task. Suddenly, he angrily begins to throw the assembly parts around the room.
Scene #3 An elementary school child sits in a classroom with 30 other children. After sitting passively for 10 minutes, he deliberately puts his head down on his desk. He steadfastly refuses to begin his schoolwork.
Upon re-examination, the following interpretations put the behavioral communication into a more understandable perspective:
Scene #1 Revisited In the self-injury situation, the person might have been protesting an unexpected change in his daily activity schedule. He was expecting to go out to eat. No one remembered to tell him in advance that the activity was postponed until tomorrow. To put it mildly, he is upset and disappointed.
Scene #2 Revisited In the throwing of materials situation, the person might be communicating: (a) boredom with the task at hand, and (b) the need for a break. Because of an inability to talk, this man cannot tell anyone in a direct fashion how bored he is with doing the same task day after day. He needs a break, but, more importantly, he needs a greater variety of challenging tasks to fill his day.
Scene #3 Revisited In the protesting situation, the child might be confused about the assignment and needs help or an explanation. He may have been unable to process all of the spoken instructions when they were given to the class ten minutes ago. Now he does not know what to do and feels he is a failure.
It is very eye-opening to see how one will view someone or a situation differently when you know the whole picture. It is easier to support that person and to respond to the real message when one learns to look beyond the immediate behavioral communication act.
Other examples of Behavioral Communication
|Behavioral Communication Act||Possible Messages|
|Falling off the chair to the floor||1) I can't do this; 2) I'm tired of sitting;|
3) Come talk to me.
|Knocking all puzzle pieces to the floor||1) That piece just didn't fit; 2) I can't find the piece I need; 3) I need help|
|Protesting putting on a short sleeve shirt||1) That doesn't feel right- I like something tightly touching my arms; 2) This is out of routine- I always wear long sleeve shirts.|
|Wanting a piece of string dangling from a package||1) I LOVE to watch the string move back and forth when I shake it; 2) I saw it; it's mine.|
|Breaking a pencil in half||1) It is HARD for me to write for more than a few minutes; my hand gets cramped. 2) I hate writing; let me use the computer.|
|Picking at a sore on his hand||1) This feels good. 2) That spot is still there-maybe a little more picking and it will disappear.|
|Taking an assembly piece from someone at his work table despite protests||1) Will you be my friend?|
|Rocking body back and forth with vigor||1) I need to calm myself.|
|Shredding a school paper into confetti||1) I made a mistake; I can't make a mistake; I'm "stupid" if I make a mistake.|
|Taunting the boys playing baseball||1) Can I play too?|
Unless one has grown up with frequent contact with a person with ASD, many persons will be novices at the time of their first encounter. It takes time to learn all that is needed but hopefully others are there to help. While on the journey to becoming more familiar, it will be helpful to remember about behavioral communication. Communication is often difficult for individuals with ASD, particularly if they are stressed or anxious. This occurs for those who can talk as well as for those who must communicate by another means such as through signing. All behavioral communication has a message; it will be important to look for it and to figure it out, with help, as needed.
Vicker, B. (2009). A Message to Novices and Strangers to ASD: Look for Behavioral Communication. Bloomington, IN: Indiana Resource Center for Autism.