Autistic people have difficulties with interpreting both verbal and non-verbal language like gestures or tone of voice. Many have a very literal understanding of language, and think people always mean exactly what they say. They may find it difficult to use or understand:
- facial expressions
- tone of voice
- jokes and sarcasm.
Some may not speak, or have fairly limited speech. They will often understand more of what other people say to them than they are able to express, yet may struggle with vagueness or abstract concepts. Some autistic people benefit from using, or prefer to use, alternative means of communication, such as sign language or visual symbols. Some are able to communicate very effectively without speech.
Others have good language skills, but they may still find it hard to understand the expectations of others within conversations, perhaps repeating what the other person has just said (this is called echolalia) or talking at length about their own interests.
It often helps to speak in a clear, consistent way and to give autistic people plenty of time to process what has been said to them.
Autistic people often have difficulty 'reading' other people - recognising or understanding others' feelings and intentions - and expressing their own emotions. This can make it very hard for them to navigate the social world. They may:
- appear to be insensitive
- seek out time alone when overloaded by other people
- not seek comfort from other people
- appear to behave 'strangely' or in a way thought to be socially inappropriate.
Autistic people may find it hard to form friendships. Some may want to interact with other people and make friends, but may be unsure how to go about it.
Autistic people may also experience over or under sensitivity to sounds, touch, tastes, smells, light, colours, temperatures or pain. For example, they may find certain background sounds, which other people ignore or block out, unbearably loud or distracting. This can cause anxiety or even physical pain. Or they may be fascinated by lights or spinning objects.
Many autistic people have difficulty with regulating their own emotional state or may have learnt a specific strategy that may not be deemed socially acceptable. It is important for the autistic person to have the ability to maintain a well-regulated emotional state to cope with everyday stress, and to be most available for communication and interaction. If they don't this can lead to anxiety, which may result in a 'melt down'. A factor to consider when it comes to emotional regulation is that the autistic young person may have sensory differences. They may be over-sensitive to some senses, under-sensitive to others and often a combination of both.
For example, for someone who is over-sensitive to touch and sound, people brushing past them and a loud announcement at a train station could cause pain and sensory overload, leading to a meltdown.