The impairment in communication in a person with autism can differ in its level of severity. One autistic person may never speak at all whilst another may use language well. Some children bombard people with questions or talk constantly; some children have echolalia, merely repeating back what they have heard. Many autistic children simply pick up language they have heard from videos and cartoons. Anyone who knows all of my family knows that much of Ben's language is actually Joe's, copied but yet not understood. All autistic people however have some difficulty in the way they use and understand verbal and non verbal forms of communication. Understanding facial expressions, body language and subtle use of spoken language such as idioms and metaphors are all part ofthe language and communication problems experienced by autistic people. All parents, carers and even teachers reading this will be able to think of many examples of the communication difficulties experienced by the children in their care and whilst we can all provide amusing examples of how often language is misunderstood, the reality and severity of these problems cannot be underestimated. Whether a child or person is considered to be 'high functioning' or at the lower end of the spectrum, the communication difficulties pervade every walk of life.
Although Ben speaks at a very immature level with many sound systems not yet in place, and although he didn't speak at all till he was nearing five years old, a recent assessment by a speech and language therapist stated that "Ben has no evidence of a language disorder". He has recently begun to speak about himself in the first person, does not confuse his pronouns too often now, and is generally progressing amazingly in both his receptive and expressive language. Nevertheless, even if Ben no longer fits the criteria for a language disorder, he certainly has an impairment in communication. To live with a child who is so literal that almost every sentence is misunderstood, to live with a child who does not understand facial expressions and actually doesn't grasp the concept of others having feelings at all, or needs a picture and a sign in order for him to fully process what he is being told, would maybe enlighten any speech therapists who have difficulty understanding the communication difficulties of verbal autistic children.
Most nights provide me with a blatant example of Ben's difficulties in this area. By 10.30pm each night, Ben is still screaming that his fingers are dark and he wants me to sleep with him to keep his eyes sunny! (I can only deduce that he is anxious of sleeping and gets stressed when he cannot see his fingers, which he flicks in front of his face as he falls asleep.) In desperation one night, I decided to deviate from his routine and read to him out of one of my favourite books, Alice in Wonderland. As I read on, I watched Ben try hard to listen and his little face frown and look puzzled and scared. "Alice's eyes soon fell on a small bottle," I read to him. As soon as the words left my mouth, Ben's eyes widened and his bottom lip trembled. "Silly mummy," I corrected myself, "people's eyes can't fall". Ben's shoulders relaxed and he gave a watery smile. I continued reading to him, telling him that Alice had found a bottle which said "drink me". Immediately, Ben collapsed into fits of hysterical laughter, flapped his hands and slapped his head in excitement.. .of course bottles can't talk so couldn't say "drink me"!
Those of you with autistic children will be able to recall many such incidents with your own children. These scenarios are impossible to quantify. No one could ever "laugh their heads off" or "cry their eyes out" in our household without reducing Ben to a flapping, quivering wreck.
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Autism is a developmental disorder that manifests itself in early childhood and affects the functioning of the brain, primarily in the areas of social interaction and communication. Children with autism look like other children but do not play or behave like other children. They must struggle daily to cope and connect with the world around them.