Some individuals with ASD (especially those with high-functioning autism and Asperger syndrome) possess well-developed spoken language, with good vocabulary and perfect grammar. However, they still have difficulties with pragmatics (using language for communication) and non-verbal communication.
Let us consider some other common problems experienced by ‘fluent speakers’:
Autistic people may have problems with comprehension because of processing problems. They often cannot keep up with the rate of ‘verbal flow’. When they are trying to find the right words to say, others are already talking about different things. They need time find the right words and say them.
As the difficulties they experience are often ‘invisible’, the interlocutor assumes that communication is successful:
‘Yes’, my mouth was saying automatically in response to the external blah-blah as the battle raged inside me. I had no idea what I’d said yes to and was too distracted to even worry whether the yes would bring me bad consequences… ‘Is it okay?’ ‘Yes,’ I replied automatically as usual, having only half understood the words. Unless someone gave me an explicit choice – ‘Do you want this or not’ – I usually felt compelled to go along, not understanding that in fact I had a choice. (Williams)
The fluency of the speech of people with autism seems to depend on what they are talking about. If the conversation concerns the subject of their special interest their speech may be fluent, complex and sophisticated. If they are not interested in the subject of the conversation, they may struggle to utter the simplest words. They may be literally ‘lost for words’. (They know what they want to say but can’t find the ‘right words’)
No matter how ‘verbal’ autistic individuals are, they tend to interpret everything literally. Eventually they may learn the meaning of idioms and common metaphorical phrases. However, they still experience difficulty in understanding ‘empty’ words, irony and humour. They may get in trouble because of trying to do ‘the right thing’, i.e., what they are told, following the instruction to the letter. For example: Told to “pull your socks up” (meaning, ‘start working or studying harder because they have been lazy or careless’), the person can do just that – pulling his/her socks up.
If we think about the words and conventional phrases that we use from the autistic perspective, the logic of the following arguments is unbearable: if you feel terrible why say ‘I’m fine’? If you are not interested in how I feel why ask ‘How are you?’
Social & non-verbal communication
A good verbal arsenal does not seem to make it any easier for autistic people to interpret non-verbal cues in order to find out the intentions of the speaker. They find it hard to ‘read’ the meaning of gestures, facial expressions and ‘eye-talk’, and have to learn theoretically the art of conversation, with all the rules of how to initiate the conversation, take turns in the process, be polite (and even lie!):
“It’s hard for me to tell when someone is lying. It took me a very long time, and a lot of painful experience, just to learn what lying is. I have to use cognitive strategies to make up for some basic instincts that I don’t have.” (Sinclair)
“Autistic people… are naïve socially. Their innocence and literalness prevent them from being able to distinguish between foe or friend in many cases… Autistic people generally don’t know the things others know naturally. They can’t be taken for granted, and they can’t be expected to know something just because others know it." (O’Neill).
Though imitation problems are said to be common in individuals with autism, so far the research evidence is inconclusive, and recent studies show that, for example, imitation abilities of young adults with ASD are preserved (Beelen et al. 2017). In fact, many autistic individuals are excellent mimics, able to take another person’s way of speaking, moving, etc. (Tantam 2009).
"Instead of talking with people, I would merely mimic them and talk endlessly over the top of them as though this sufficed for conversation" (Williams 1999b, p.24).
To disguise their difficulties in understanding social and communicative conventions people with high-functioning autism and Asperger syndrome may employ sophisticated echolalia – the term coined by Lilian Holliday Willey to describe her ‘fitting in’ trick. It is their survival strategy (that is not easily detected by ‘outsiders’) which help them function in a social world they do not quite comprehend:
"[When all else failed] I used to rely on a ‘fitting in’ trick that is nothing more than a sophisticated form of echolalia. Like a professional mimic I could catch someone else’s personality as easily as other people catch a cold. I did this by surveying the group of people I was with, then consciously identifying the person I was most taken in by. I would watch them intently, carefully marking their traits, until almost as easily as if I had turned on a light, I would turn their personality on in me. I can change my mannerisms and my voice and my thoughts until I am confident they match the person I wanted to echo. Of course, I knew what I was doing, and of course, I was sometimes embarrassed by it, but it worked to keep me connected and sometimes that was all that concerned me. It was simply more efficient for me to use the kinds of behaviours other people used, than it was for me to try and create some of my own… It is simply easier to echo, more comfortable and typically more successful superficially to pretend to be someone I am not." (Willey)
"Even today I often mimic people without realizing it. The imitations I do of people’s speech patterns can be embarrassing when I speak to people with accents because I wonder if they realize that I am imitating them… Often I will pick up mannerisms of others when I am with them. One time I was told that this was due to a weakness in being able to form a personality. I think it is far more likely a problem in separating myself from the environment as a distinct and separate being" (Shore)
Language as ‘stress reliever’
In stressful situations autistic people may talk to themselves in order to ‘unwind’:
"After every social encounter…I go through a period of what seems to be a kind of ‘letting off steam’. I wait until I’m alone, and then, when I am able to relax my shell of control, I twitch and vocalize. My hands jump around, flying this way and that, or gesturing elaborately about nothing. Meanwhile, my voice speaks nonsense. I say ‘my voice speaks’, because the words are involuntary. My conscious, deliberate mind is not involved. I don’t know what I will say until I hear myself say it. Occasionally, I discover that I’m not as alone as I thought I was. The apparently deserted street is inhabited by a man crouching down to inspect the tire of his car, and I wonder for the rest of the day what he thought when this literally jerky middle-aged woman walking by all alone suddenly barked out, ‘I don’t love you’. Or ‘elaborate retirement options’. Or ‘thirteen purple penguins’, Or whatever phrase that non-voluntary portion of my brain happens to be using for decompression that day. Sometimes it’s nothing more exciting than ‘no, no, no, no, no, no, no’ repeated until I can stop." (Meyerding)
Cummins, Pellicano, Crane (2020) summarized (18) autistic adults' views on their communication skills and support needs. The autistic participants presented complex views on communication, identifying the benefits of communication, while also emphasizing the significant negative impact that communication difficulties can have on their everyday lives. They identified a range of internal (such as, e.g., personal feelings) and external (e.g., the communication partner) factors, and highlighted the need for support at both individual levels (for specific life situations) and broader societal levels (to increase awareness and acceptance of communication difficulties). The communication difficulties they experience, and how these can negatively impact on physical and mental health. These difficulties are not just rooted within the person themselves but can be influenced by external factors (e.g., the environment and the communication partner).