Age-appropriate interaction with autistic people

Hello, I am a teacher. I wanted to say thank you for your posts. I work with one student who is autistic and not quite non-verbal, but speaks very little.
I found myself talking to her as if she were much younger than she is because I had no way of telling if she was understanding. Your posts have helped me to understand that even though she doesn’t speak, it doesn’t mean she doesn’t understand, and even if she doesn’t, I should still treat her like the 12-year-old she is

On Wednesday I spoke to her to let her know that I was wrong to have spoken to her like a little kid, and that I would now be speaking to her like a twelve-year-old. She seemed pleased. I have ASD traits myself, but I’ve never been non-verbal (even when I couldn’t speak, I still signed), so I didn’t really understand that non-verbal doesn’t mean not understanding necessarily. Thank you.

realsocialskills said:
Oh wow. That is heartening to hear. It’s wonderful that you realized that it was wrong to talk to her like a young child, and that you apologized. That is such an important sign of respect for her. Thank you for taking this seriously, and thank you for telling me about this.

I want to add that, in addition to talking to her like a 12 year old, you probably need to develop better skills at listening to her like a 12 year old.

Probably most of the people you’ve known in your life who had a small expressive vocabulary or spoke only sometimes were very young children. Her speech is not like that. She is thinking much more complex things than a young child is capable of. If you’re not used to listening to nonverbal or minimally verbal folks who are not babies, you probably don’t yet know how to do so in an age-appropriate way.

So it’s not just the way you initiate talking to her that needs to change, it’s also the way you respond to what she says. She has a lot to say. Possibly through her words; possibly mostly through her actions; possibly mostly through body language. But, in any case, she is 12 years old, and she has a lot of 12 year old things to say.

You can learn how to listen to her better. It’s a matter of respect, practice, and skills you can develop. For instance:

You can get a lot of mileage out of asking yes or no questions. (For some people, it helps to prompt with “yes or no” if it seems like answering yes/no questions isn’t a skill they have all the time) Eg: “Did you bring a lunch today - yes or no?”)

You can also use other kinds of two-option questions. Eg: If you know that she wants a book but she can’t tell you which book she wants, you can put your hand in the middle of the shelf and say “Up or down?” “Left or right?” “This one?”.

You can get even more out of asking a question with an open ended and closed response. Someone who can’t give you a meaningful answer to “What do you want to do?” may well be able to answer “Do you want to draw, or do something else?” Or “Is the answer England, or something else?”

You can also listen to what she says, make guesses about what she means, tell her what your guess is, and ask if you are right. For instance “You just said juice several times. I think that might be because you want to drink juice. Do you want juice, or do you mean something else?” Or “You just said "We’re all friends here!” and you sounded angry. Are you upset about something?“ Or "You just said "Separate but equal!”. Are you talking about discrimination?“

I’ve written about listening to atypical communication here, and here, and I wrote a more general post about how to provide respectful support to an autistic student here.

For some further perspective on this, I’d highly recommend reading the blog Emma’s Hope Book. It’s a blog written by the mother of a 12 year old autistic girl whose speech is unreliable (with some posts from her as well), and they have a lot of really important things to say about how to respect people whose communication is atypical. 

tl;dr: Your student has things to say, whether or not she has figured out how to say them. She is already saying some of them (in words or otherwise), whether or not you understand her communication. The more you assume that she is trying to communicate with you, and the more you assume that what she says is worthwhile, the more you will be able to understand her and teach her in age-appropriate ways.

some replies about comfort in a new flat

dohegotthebunty said:Humidity level can be another sneaky discomfort

destroy-harime-nui said: If you had pictures or art you had displayed in your old apartment, put them up again! I’ve moved from dorm to dorm these past few years and I use my posters and art to make the room feel like home.

@snouted said: I’m neurotypical and I have struggled with this at times too. I try to set some of my stuff up in the same orientation it was - like, if I had a lamp and stuffed animals on the RIGHT of my bed, I make sure to do the same in the new place.

galacticpleasuredome said: I just had a fire at my house, so I set up my new bed with the same blankets and pillows as my last, made my favorite food, and sat in bed and watched my favorite show. also if you have friends, having them over can make a space feel like your own.

lavendermintrose asked realsocialskills:

…I don’t think it’s right to say the world is “broken” because that would mean it used to be better. The truth is, everything that’s bad now has just been worse in the past. Which only reinforces the point that being happy isn’t a moral failing - because if it were wrong to be happy now, it would be wrong to have been happy ever.

That’s a really, really good point. Thank you for pointing that out.

Trying to detect dehumanization



I’m really good at telling when people don’t quite think I’m a person, but I’m not quite sure *how* I detect this. I’m trying to figure it out.

A good part of what’s in this post is probably wrong, because this is really hard to get a handle on. And *some* of these things are sometimes the result of other things, like communication problems.

But here’s a draft list of things I think that I detect as signs that someone doesn’t see me as a person:

  • There’s kind of more of a pause than usual, and then what they responded to wasn’t really in reaction to what you said. They’re reacting to some imaginary person.
  • They don’t seem to understand what you’re saying, but they don’t ask any clarifying questions.
  • They don’t answer your clarifying questions.
  • They look at each other a lot, but not you.
  • They try to insist on talking about your feelings rather than the problem or concrete thing you want to talk about.
  • They tell you in authoritative tones what you are thinking or feeling or need or want, and they’re not open to corrections.
  • They completely ignore you when you say things that don’t fit their agenda, to the extent that you start doubting that you actually said it.
  • They go on and on about how smart you are, but they don’t seem to want to discuss anything else with you.
  • They expect effusive gratitude for mundane acts like getting something down from a shelf they can reach that you can’t.
  • Their body language shifts dramatically when they’re interacting with you; it’s really different than how it looks when they’re interacting with others. 
  • They have a voice they use with adults, and a voice they use with young children, and they use their little-kid-voice with you.

Thoughts, anyone? Which of these things am I wrong (or right) about? What other signs are there?

I think a good percentage of y’all know exactly what I am talking about, but it’s really hard to pin down.

I don’t think you’re completely wrong about any of these, but some of them can definitely be caused by other things besides dehumanization.  Your second point sort of jumped out at me, because I do that sometimes.  I have trouble understanding people when there’s much background noise, and sometimes I get fed up with saying “I’m sorry, could you repeat that?” so I pretend that I’ve understood when I haven’t.  I do want to understand, but I don’t want to slow things down by asking people to repeat themselves over and over, and sometimes people seem to think I’m being rude when I ask.  I think there are some situations where it’s better for me to guess instead of asking (like, I can be reasonably sure that what the cashier at Subway says when I get to the register is “What kind of sandwich is it?  Do you want it as a meal?”) but I guess I need to be aware that it can seem disrespectful.

Oh, yes, absolutely that is a different thing. I’m not talking about situations in which you can reliably assume based on context that everyone is working off a script. Then it’s ok to respond to the script even if you can’t actually hear the script clearly, so long as you’re open to corrections if you make a mistake.

When it’s not that kind of situation, though, and it’s actually substantively non-scripted interpersonal interaction, I’ve found that it often really helps to disclose when there’s a problem. If you just ask people to repeat stuff over and over, they tend to get annoyed because they’re doing what you asked and it’s not actually working at getting you to understand them.

It helps to explicitly say that you want to understand/hear/listen, what the practical problem is that making it difficult, and what would help. For instance:

  • It’s too loud in here for me to understand you. Can we step out for a minute?
  • You’re getting drowned out by all the noise; could you turn towards me?
  • I want to understand, but I’m not processing it right. Could you try using different words?
  • I’m having trouble understanding with all this background noise; could you write it down? (this one is harder, but works sometimes)
Also, if you’re guessing, it can help to say explicitly what the guess is. For instance:
  • Did you ask me where to find the drinks?
  • Did you say you know my friend Joe?
  • Did you say physics or fabrics, or something else?
Because then people know that you are listening and trying to understand, and can get a sense of what the communication breakdown is, and maybe find ways of correcting it. Sometimes that can backfire, but it often works.

And then there are people who just can’t be bothered to communicate with people who need non-standard things. There’s not much you can do about how those people perceive you, except to be aware that it is not your fault.