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Communication in autism is generally one of the biggest challenges faced by individuals with the condition. An individual with autism typically has various characteristic communication difficulties, including lack of eye contact, an inability to properly express thoughts, and an inability to use or understand indirect gestures. Autistic individuals who do express themselves verbally might have certain characteristic speech patterns, such as repetitive or specialized speech, and might also speak in monotone, lacking appropriate inflection and facial expression.
A person with autism often appears to be disconnected from others and sometimes seems to function within his or her own private world. This aspect of autism causes difficulties with an individual’s joint attention and imitative skills. Generally, a deficit in the development of those skills significantly affects communication in autism.
Joint attention involves a person’s tendency to base his or her own reaction to a stimulus upon the reaction of another individual and is usually developed naturally in early childhood. For instance, if an individual is looking at a picture that is scary, he or she might glance at another individual to gauge that person’s reaction to the picture and model his or her own reaction accordingly. Imitation is a similar skill that involves a person’s ability to mirror the behavior, body language, and voice inflection of other individuals in order to communicate appropriately. Again, this skill is usually developed in early childhood. When these skills are lacking, as they usually are in autism, communication skills generally do not develop appropriately.
In many cases, communication in autism is marked by either a complete lack of eye contact or inappropriate eye contact, such as staring for excessive periods of time. During normal communication, most people utilize eye contact to engage another person. Individuals with autism do not utilize this communication mechanism appropriately in their interactions with others.
Individuals who have autism often have difficulty interpreting and using indirect gestures. For example, if a person points to an object across the room, an autistic individual will not understand the gesture as directing his or her attention to the object. Generally, communication in autism involves direct, tactile gestures. Rather than point or verbally request an object, a person with autism will typically communicate the need by physically taking a person by the hand to the item desired or laying a person’s hand on the object he or she desires assistance with.
Expressing thoughts through words, either written or spoken, is a skill many with autism have difficulty developing. Some individuals with autism never learn to speak or write and are limited to direct gestures and expressive sounds. This kind of communication in autism is extremely challenging and frustrating, especially when the individual is not in a controlled environment with people familiar with the particular gestures and expressions used to communicate.
When an autistic individual is able to develop verbal communication, his or her speech patterns might have certain characteristic tendencies. For instance, many individuals with autism develop repetitive speech patterns, either repeating a particular phrase over and over or parroting what another person has said. Others might speak profusely about a particular subject matter but are unable to express themselves with regard to other topics. Generally, however, even when verbal communication in autism is at a high level, the vocal tones often lack inflection, and the individual typically lacks appropriate facial expressions to accompany his or her words.
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