Realising that talking and communicating are not the same thing

autism and communication

Finding out our Son has communication difficulties at the age of 5, was a surprise. How could our son, whose vocabulary was advanced for his age, have an issue with communication?

He understood what words meant, used them appropriately in sentences, and we often thought he spoke like a mini adult based on the phrases that he used.  He had no issues with talking, and to us he did not come across like a child who had communication issues.

He had no issues with talking, and to us he did not come across to us like a child who had communication issues
What we didn't realise was that he was speaking at us rather than with us, and he was only engaging in conversations that he was interested in. You might wonder how we missed that, but he was our first born and we just put a lot of his mannerisms down to cute quirks.

Reading the speech and language therapist's report was tough, as we learnt of all the difficulties that the had picked up on. This included:
  • slow language processing speed unless he is following his own train of thought
  • tendency to be literal and inflexible in his understanding of language, struggling to see the world from different perspectives
  • not reading and interpreting non-verbal messages accurately, and is not able to use non-verbal communication effectively
  • limited ability to infer or predict information or to understand thoughts and feelings of characters involved in storylines
  • trying to impose his own will on other children rather than negotiate with them
  • difficulties in turn taking and making relevant contributions to discussions

In summary he has a social communication disorder affecting his social interactions with peers and adults, his understanding of himself, and his social use of language.

a social communication disorder affecting his social interactions with peers and adults, and his understanding of himself and others and his social use of language
Suddenly so many things made sense:
  • his not always responding to people when they spoke to him or called his name
  • his changing the topic if we asked him a  something that had happened, or his thoughts / feelings
  • his shouting out and growling at other children on playgrounds and soft play
  • his getting upset when playing football, as he thought the other kids were fighting with him
  • his disappearing into an imaginary world, pretending he is in a superhero film whenever another boy his age is around

With up to 93% of communication being non-verbal (according to Professor Mehrabian), an inability to correctly interpret or use non-verbal communication properly has a major impact on our son being able to understand others or make himself understood.

An additional challenge is that people assume that his ability to communicate is better than it is, as he is so articulate and comes across as intelligent. They don't realise that he has communication issues which makes them less understanding when there is a communication breakdown.

Appreciating that being able to talk and being able to communicate are two different things has shifted our own understanding. We realised that whilst he may have a great vocabulary there is so much more that he needs to learn before he will be able to truly communicate with those around him. 

being able to talk and being able to communicate are two different things
At school he was introduced to Social Thinking, a set of tools aimed at helping children develop social skills. As a superhero fan, he enjoyed the stories about Superflex and the unthinkables, and we now encouraging him to be a social detective to figure out what others are doing or plan to do.

With social skill building integrated into his school day, he is slowly learning about turn taking, appropriate use of voice and participating in group activities. He is making progress, but has a long way to go.

Last weekend we were reminded of his communication challenges when a friends son asked him to play. There was complete disinterest. It was if the boy wasn't there, and my son completely blanked him as he stood waiting for my son to respond.

After a few minutes of silence, I asked the boy about the superheroes that he liked. Suddenly there was a spark, and a connection was made. It was like my Son had suddenly been given an in, and he started to ask the boy more questions about lego and superheroes - his two favourite topics. For the next hour I watched as they played together. It wasn't exactly a flowing conversation between them but it was a start.

I don't know whether he will ever learn enough to have a two-way conversation with people around him, but I do know that through him I have learnt a lot more about what it takes to communicate.

Communication is a two-way process, which means that it is as much about us learning to communicate with him as it is about him learning to communicate with us.

My Random Musings
Sons, Sand & Sauvignon


  1. I really enjoyed reading this post. You are so right when you say that it's as much about us learning how to communicate with our children as it is about them learning how to communicate with us. Thanks for writing at #spectrumsunday

  2. Communication is so tricky for our kids on the spectrum. Thanks for sharing.

    1. It is definitely one of our top challenges - this week at school he is learning to talk about his thoughts and feelings which will be a major breakthrough if he starts doing it


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