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Direct vs indirect communication:

Updated: Jul 26, 2021

Insisting on ‘Look at me when I’m talking to you’ vs. Talking to the wall

Some autistic children need an intensive interaction style that make them aware of the presence of others and does not let them ‘slip’ into their own world – this is a directly-confrontational approach. For instance, for Temple Grandin, a more ‘intrusive’ style was beneficial as her sensory-perceptual problems were mild.

For somebody with severe sensory distortions, a different approach is needed. They can make better meaning out of what they see or hear by looking or listening peripherally (such as out of the corner of her eye or by looking or listening to something else), a kind of indirectly confrontational approach (Williams 1998).

For example, the best way Donna Williams could be able to listen to someone, was for them to speak aloud to themselves about her or about someone like her. That would inspire Donna to show she could relate to what was being said. In doing so, indirect contact, such as looking out of a window whilst talking, was best. This, however, would only work once one has achieved the ability for some co-operation. In this case, this seeming indifference would actually demonstrate awareness and sensitivity to the child’s problems of coping with directness.

Some autistic individuals actually hear (= understand) you better when they are not looking at you!

Thus, with these children, if you want to explain or show something, do so as if out loud to yourself, addressing the wall or the floor, or your shoes, or the objects relating to the demonstration. Then the child with a problem of overload is able, similarly, to address and interact with you through speaking out loud with you ‘in mind’.

To make it easier to teach children about the functional meanings of objects by reducing the informational overload, sit next to your child (not in front of him) and address the object / the art work/ the issue, and not the child (unless you want to inhibit motivation to participate fully next time). Make the objects you are talking about your ‘audience’, with the child in the background. In this case, the child will be less overloaded and more able to understand what is happening. Gradually, bridges can be built from indirectly- to more directly-confrontational interaction and communication (Williams 1996).

The transition from indirectly confrontational to direct communication should not be rushed. We have to be ‘in tune’ with the child. Starting from minimal speech (the consistent use of only one or two concrete words that are strictly relevant to the situation), to speaking aloud to ourselves or to the wall (occasionally mentioning the child’s name), we can then move to speaking in the direction of the child and only then to talking face to face (but, still, never insist on eye contact – let the child look at your forehead, shoulder, etc.)

Always relate to such children in accordance with how they perceive the world, gain their trust, and through trust they may develop interest in ‘the world’. At first this exploration should be on their own terms – the only terms they know. It may trigger motivation – the most important key to learning.

Perhaps you won’t see the immediate results (because of delayed processing), but the information is ‘there’, and it can be triggered later when the child not only surprises you but often surprises himself – sort of ‘unknown knowing’ (the term coined by Donna Williams).

Another very important issue to remember is, for those who cannot tolerate ‘directness’ yet, traditional praise and reward (applause, loud praise, etc.) may be experienced as punishment, and the person learns to avoid it at any cost, often by withdrawal and seeming loss of skills.

Instead of direct (and emotionally charged) praise, you can talk to your colleague (with the child in the same room) about the child’s achievement and how proud you are of him/her, for example, “You know, today Mary has drawn a very nice picture – all by herself!” Such ‘indirect praise’ will inspire the girl to do more drawing, writings, completing assignments, etc.

Recent research confirms (what many autistic individuals have been saying for decades) that autistic children may learn from language that is not directed to them (Luyster and Arunachalam 2020). What is more, in many cases, it is through overhearing that they learn much better than when learning face to face.

Instead of saying ‘Look at me when I’m talking to you!’ let us remember that

Many autistic children learn not because we teach them but in spite of it.

PS: And another thing:

  • Be very careful while talking about your child with specialists/ doctors / teachers, with him/her present in the same room, even if you think your child is too young/ has autism with a learning disability. It’s likely he wouldn’t understand it at that moment, however, he will ‘get it’ eventually. If your conversation contains any negative information about the child’s condition or your worries about it, it will bring anxiety or negative feelings about the condition/ himself in your child.

  • Don’t discuss your personal issues while chatting to your friend/ colleague, with the child present. Perhaps the child won’t understand it but he might remember whatever you say, and sooner or later this info will be triggered and the child might recite everything verbatim. The worst thing is, it can happen anywhere – in a supermarket, at school, at the doctor’s…

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