Autism: How it Affects Communication and the Way People are Working to Improve It

Once viewed and addressed as separate disorders, autism spectrum disorder (autism or ASD for short), encompasses a range of conditions that impact an individual’s mental development and how they interact with and perceive others and their surroundings. These communication disorders can include social impairment, repetitive behaviors, and difficulty communicating.

According to the CDC, in the United States alone, 1 in every 59 children suffers from some form of ASD. Between 2006 and 2008, 1 in 6 US children had developmental disabilities that ranged from speech issues to cerebral palsy. Let's get a better understanding of ASD and what's being done to treat it.

Learn more about masters in communication disorders programs.

How Does Autism Impact Communication

Autism Upset Kid w Plane

Since its reclassification, the symptoms and signs of ASD have been well defined, with many being identified in children beginning between the ages of two and three.

Arguably, the most distinctive characteristic of ASD is how it affects an individual’s means of communication.

Of course, each ASD case is different and may have its own unique conditions or level of severity. When it comes to the effect ASD has on communication, any one of the following signs (or a combination of them) may be an indication of ASD:

  • Limited or no eye contact or lacking in facial expression
  • Does not respond to their name or when someone is addressing them (may seem aloof, even if they are not)
  • The individual doesn’t speak or loses prior ability to speak; if they do, it’s often in an unusual or atypical tone of voice (at times can be either robotic or sing-song)
  • Unable to converse normally or sustain a two-way conversation; speaks only when making a request or in repetition that is often out of context; may be able to extensively monologue about a very narrow topic that interests only them
  • Avoids physical affection or communication (such as hugging or cuddling); gravitates towards being alone or playing by themselves; often seen as distant or wholly consumed by their own world
  • May not respond to straightforward instructions but can display exceptional abilities when engaged in a subject that interests them (for example, may not understand how to read a simple children’s book, but demonstrates a savant-like gift for understanding math or music
  • Difficulty conveying or showing emotion; doesn’t understand when others show emotion or easily disregards their feelings
  • Inability to interpret nonverbal social cues or facial expressions; can’t recognize body language or is unable to decipher tonal changes in other voices
  • Responds to social interaction poorly; is easily agitated and can be either aggressive and disruptive or withdrawn or passive

How well a child who has ASD can communicate is most often determined by their development socially or their general intelligence. Some children may develop excellent vocabularies, while others will struggle with both understanding and speaking their native language.

Treatments to Improve Communication for those with Autism

There is no specific treatment or commonly accepted approach to treating ASD. As the situation can vary with each individual, uniform therapies are not always successful at improving ASD conditions.

There are, however, strategies, when tailored to someone’s specific needs and ASD diagnosis, that prove helpful in allowing them to better cope with autism.

The significant treatments and interventions for improving communication among those with ASD include:

Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA)

ABA targets improving focus, communication, and learning abilities through analysis of the person’s specific ASD behavior and teaching them new methods or actions. This hands-on approach allows an instructor to tailor the teaching towards both the individual and the environment with which they interact.

Communication Through Symbols

For children with severe ASD, their chances for developing healthy communication skills – verbally or nonverbally – can be extremely limited. To bridge that gap, children are taught to utilize sign language or express themselves through a system of symbols or pictures, which may prove more manageable for them to learn and less stressful to use.

Early Start Denver Model

Geared towards children between the ages of one and four, the Early Start Denver Model promotes positive interaction, using fun, kid-friendly activities to help them create meaningful relationships with others.

Although the initial stages begin with a behavioral specialist or occupational therapist, the model is designed to work at home with parents providing the therapy.


Another therapy for younger children with ASD, floortime, while simple in name and approach, builds a child’s ability to learn and engage in more complex interactions – including communication, intimacy, and emotional behaviors.

Parents are encouraged to allow the child to take the lead in this therapy, which also helps them build confidence when dealing with their own emotions and surroundings.


Although there is no direct medicinal treatment for ASD, some medications are used to address specific symptoms of ASD. For example, if ASD is accompanied by anxiety, hyperactivity, or uncontrollable behavioral issues, specific prescriptions will help regulate those concerns.

Other medications will help treat depression, problems sleeping, or seizures. It is important to note that some treatments may exacerbate ASD conditions, so it’s vital to educate yourself and work closely with a health provider on a specific treatment.

Occupational and Speech Therapies

Both critical steps in ensuring those with ASD can live healthy, normal lives, occupational and speech therapies help teach skills that many of us regularly take for granted.

Occupational skills include showing those with autism how to dress, and take care of themselves hygienically. Speech therapy refines the speech, tonal subtleties, and facial mannerisms of everyday speaking, allowing the individual to communicate effectively without distress or anxiety.

Another extension of this is verbal behavior therapy, where the contextual use of proper language is taught – showing those with ASD meaning and reasoning behind the words both they and others around them use.

Pivotal Response

Pivotal response treatment or PRT uses natural, positive reinforcement to teach better social skills – rewarding the child in a meaningful way based upon their actions or requests. The purpose is to strengthen how to appropriately send and receive social cues

Relationship Development Intervention (RDI)

With an emphasis on helping those with ASD adapt their actions and thoughts to their environment, RDI promotes dynamic thinking, where challenging the brain will help it evolve if given the proper instruction.

The focus is to provide a higher quality of life by showing the individual how to adapt to change, consider the perspective of others, and how to observe, absorb, and act on cues from people as well as their physical environment.


A program first developed at the University of North Carolina, TEACCH focuses on visual learning while providing the appropriate support for the challenges that come with those who have ASD as they attempt to learn new communication concepts.

The main difference with the TEACCH program is that it puts the students and the specialized instructors in a classroom setting, where the learning environment is more natural without sacrificing the support someone with ASD might need.

Teacher w Autistic Student

The complexity of ASD cannot be overstated. The way in which it impacts each individual differently, with varying levels of severity make each case incredibly unique. Some individuals with ASD lead completely normal lives – they are independent, with the ability to successfully interact and communicate with those around them. Others struggle with the most basic of communication skills and require ongoing assistance and supervision.

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