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Navigating Communication Differences for Autistic Persons

Italy versus Holland.

Key points

  • Autistic and neurotypical individuals may experience communicating with one another challenging.
  • Autistic and neurotypical individuals express unique patterns of communication from a young age.
  • Understanding differences in processing information and communicating is key in a diverse society.

One of my favorite analogies for describing the emotional experience of a parent whose child has special needs is Emily Perl Kinglsey’s poem “Welcome to Holland.”

“Welcome to Holland” likens a parent’s expectation about what parenting would be and feel like to a tourist’s anticipation of exploring an unknown country, such as Italy.

After months, if not years of studying the Italian language and pouring over travel guides, not to mention basking in the anticipatory fantasy of the sensory delights of exploring Italy, parents discover that their plane has, instead, landed in Holland—where they are to stay permanently.

Goodbye fantasy (e.g., destination Italy) and hello Holland, your new normal. But wait, I only studied Italian tourist guides, parents may think in a panic, I know NOTHING about Holland, neither its language nor how to navigate its landscape. Nil.

The author beautifully concludes that after the initial shock subsides and feathers settle, many parents fall in love with the beauty of Holland and come to grow to appreciate the wonder of their new home. Some would not change where they live for the world, while others, depending on their circumstances and the meaning they attribute to their situation, may continue to grieve their unrealized dreams of Italy.

I find this clever analogy just as fitting for describing communication between people—in particular, between autistic and neurotypical individuals.

Through the analogy of Italy vs. Holland (in a strictly metaphorical way), challenges within communication between neurodivergent and neurotypical individuals can be likened to the challenges individuals from various cultures experience when communicating with one another. Individual cultures obviously make use of unique languages charged with unique symbolisms, grammatical features, and rules for communication within various social contexts. Individuals from different cultures additionally possess unique mannerisms, traditions, and preferences.

Ideally, if cross-cultural communication partners strive for openness in taking in one another’s perspectives, their communication will have the best chance to flourish. Effectively exchanging information may involve conscious consideration of words, willingness to clarify meaning in an explicit way, and if there are language barriers, making use of visual supports and alternative devices that can help with translation.

From a young age, autistic individuals, in comparison with non-autistic people, express unique patterns of communication, which can be likened to those of unique cultures with unique patterns of communication. For instance, many children on the spectrum show delays in acquiring language in comparison with non-autistic peers and show atypical behaviors, such as more frequent use of unconventional vocalizations. They may also express a reduced frequency and range of nonverbal gestures, such as delayed use of pointing, as well as other nonverbal gestures related to the sharing of joint attention, such as looking in the direction of their communication partner. Autistic children may also show reduced responsiveness to the speech of others, such as responding to their name; make greater use of echolalia; and use words in an atypical way, infusing them with their own meaning that may not be conventionally shared. Autistic individuals may also prefer a detail-oriented cognitive style and focus on specific passionate interests, which may influence what they feel motivated to communicate. They may express various degrees of discomfort related to sensory processing and find it difficult to read nonverbal cues and intentions.

For many individuals on the spectrum, connections with others may seem infused with particular challenges due to society's lack of understanding and appreciation of their unique patterns of social communication, which are frequently misunderstood and judged, or with personal challenges, such as finding it difficult to understand another person's perspective or to communicate their inner experience.

The first step in nurturing communication between autistic and neurotypical individuals is deepening interpersonal understanding through appreciating that autistic and non-autistic individuals may process information differently, whether this be in relation to reading nonverbal cues, processing sensory information, interpreting messages, or choosing where to focus.

The second step involves striving to identify and appreciate the communication strengths of each individual, such as the functions of communication that they feel are a strength for them (e.g., this could be making requests or offering comfort and empathy) and those that are a challenge and hold them back from approaching their goals (e.g., this could be commenting on another person’s statements or expressing their feelings).

The next step involves considering what strategies would be most helpful for both individuals in supporting one another to share information or perform communicative functions, such as expressing their feelings. These are wide-ranging and unique, depending on the strengths and needs of the particular individuals. Some individuals on the spectrum with limited verbal language may use augmentative and alternative communication techniques such as (to name a few) making use of photos, gestures, or visuals (e.g., the Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS)); others may prefer typing over verbally expressing information; still others may appreciate the use of structured questions to initiate topics of conversation or connect with others. Most individuals are likely to find direct, explicit communication that clarifies expectations and is supplemented by visual support helpful.

Using the analogy from the “Welcome to Holland” poem, newcomers traveling to Holland, with the help of neurodivergent perspectives, continue to deepen their appreciation and understanding of one another’s points of view and ways of communicating. The experience of multicultural countries such as Australia is that while individuals from various cultures, at times, may find it affirming to connect with peers from familiar linguistic and cultural backgrounds, striving to adjust our environment to consider each other’s perspectives and needs enriches our multicultural world with diverse insights and the appreciation of the value diversity brings to our lives.

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