Communication is one of the developmental domains affected by autism spectrum disorder (ASD). In week 2 of the new training series by parents for parents, the discussion focuses on the various forms of communication, both verbal and nonverbal, and how best to support our children as their abilities to communicate develop.
Communication is the most complicated form of human behavior. It causes people to get what they want or need, to share, to forgive, to hope, and to love, which in turn creates partnerships, friendships, teams, crews and, best of all, family memories and moments.
On the other hand, communication also causes misunderstandings, arguments, mistakes, frustration, noncompliance, meltdowns, and rejection of something or someone.
In other words, communication is more than just two people exchanging information. Communication is behavior. Because my son is nonverbal, his behavior tells me everything. It tells me when he is satisfied, sick, afraid, stressed, overwhelmed, happy, silly, sad, and—the worst of all—ready to have a meltdown and go into crisis. In a world where behavior controls everything, effective communication is the behavior I want most for my son.
This simple example shows how communication is behavior and how all behaviors are communication: Every day for 17 years, I have encountered a situation with my son where I have wondered what my son is thinking. Every day, I find myself saying to him “I wish I knew what was going on in your upstairs.
”His response is to cock his head, shake it while sticking out his tongue, and then saying “Eee.”
What is this communication between us? I believe it’s love.
How did I come to this conclusion? To begin, my statement is figurative and not literal; my son probably does not understand its meaning. His interpretation of my statement relies on 17 years of reading my body language, facial expression, my eyes, tone of voice, and my breathing. Over the years, he has come to understand that my statement is something his mom says while showing intense emotion toward him. Believe me, I have said this in every emotional state a mother with a child with autism can feel.
Unfortunately, intense emotion overwhelms and sometimes confuses him. He knows I need something because I am not happy which, besides sad, is the easiest emotion for him to understand. Over the years, I have come to understand that his confusion concerning intense emotion can be interpreted through his communication: his behaviors, body language, and sounds. When he sticks out his tongue and shakes his head, he’s trying to be silly. And when he says “Eee,” my son is expressing the need to tell me to “Be happy.” He knows the combination of his silly face and “Eee” will create my response, which is to laugh. And to my son, seeing someone smile and, best of all, laugh is what “happy” means. And he knows this is a good thing.
By making me laugh, he has overcome his confusion. He changed mom’s behavior from one that confused him to one that gives him pleasure. He now is able to understand and connect with me. Our communication is meaningful. Communication is the meaningful exchange of behaviors between two people.
Sun contributor Karen Mackie is a family support provider (FSP) in the Autism Delaware™ Kent County office and a longtime volunteer and contributor to The Sun as well as the parent of 17-year-old Jacob.
This text was edited for consistency of language and message and appears in the autumn 2019 issue of the Autism Delaware™ quarterly newsletter, The Sun.