An Introduction to Autism and Communication

Professor Olga Bogdashina, MA, PhD, DEd, Co-founder of and Programme Leader (Autism courses) at the International Autism Institute, KSPU and Co-founder of the International Consortium of Autism Institutes. Olga has an adult son with autism and lives in Yorkshire, UK. In this updated edition of her bestselling book, she provides a theoretical foundation for understanding communication and language impairments specific to autism. You can read an excerpt of her introduction below:

A blue background with different images of lemons and limes as well as the cover of the book, with the text 'Olga Bogdashina explores the effects of different perceptual and cognitive styles on the communication and language development of autistic children.'

Difficulties with language and communication are one of the defining features of autism. Although language and communication impairments have been recognized as essential characteristics of autism (in fact, they are present in all autistic individuals no matter whether the person is verbal or nonverbal), the nature of the language and communication deficits and their role in manifestation of the syndrome remains controversial.

In this book, I try to combine both approaches and consider the tools of communication and cognition in autism. I would like to return to language difficulties in autism from different perspectives by answering the questions:

• What language are we discussing?
• Is the verbal language the only language possible?

The main assumption in this book (to which we will return over and over again) is that the problems of social interaction and communication are better described as qualitatively different ways to interact, communicate and process information which do not coincide with conventional ones. It is like learning to speak a foreign language. When we find ourselves among foreigners, we do not assume that they have nothing to say or that they cannot communicate. If we want to understand them and to establish communication with them we have to learn their language or find an interpreter.

Imagine the situation. You have to go on a business trip to a foreign country, say to China. Do you bother to learn the Chinese language and culture? I doubt it. Does it stop you from going there? No way. You expect that the Chinese know your language (at least a few hundred words), so you can communicate with them. Our approach to autistic people is the same. We expect them to know our language and our culture (and we are happy to help them learn it), but we are not bothered to learn even a few words of theirs. It is unfair. Let us meet them halfway.

Let us learn their language(s). If they try to interpret our way of functioning, why can’t we do the same? Then we could help autistic people use their natural mechanisms to learn and develop strategies to deal with their difficulties, such as, for example, sensory hypersensitivities and information overload. We could help them cope with behavioural and emotional problems. And what is very important, we could learn their communication systems and teach them translation skills in order to make communication easier for both us and them. It will enable both sides to communicate with each other.

As we know that autistic people have differences in their brain structure or/and chemistry (for whatever reasons this might be) we can assume that their development is different and they follow different stages (or the same stages but in a different order). So, in this book the comparison of their development with that of the non-autistic population is undertaken only in order to understand and explain their differences, and provide the autistic individuals with tools and/or strategies to express their thoughts and successfully communicate with others (not to find ways to ‘correct’ or ‘repair’ their development).

In Part 1 we identify the theoretical foundation and the main concepts that will be used throughout the book. First, we define communication, language and speech, and examine a range of communicative functions and different means of communication (Chapter 1) in order to create a framework for the discussion. There is an overview of theories of language acquisition in typical development (Chapter 2) and a brief discussion of nonlinguistic factors that may cause problems in this domain. We will further consider how sensory perceptual differences affect cognitive processes and are reflected in the differences of thinking, language and communication development (Chapters 4–7), and then move on to the discussion of the ‘autistic languages’ (Chapter 8).

Part 2 is devoted to language characteristics, learning styles and language development (Chapters 9–11) and ‘fluent speakers’’ problems (Chapter 12).

Part 3 contains information on assessment and intervention issues, with practical recommendations for selecting the appropriate methods and techniques to enhance communication, based on the specific mode of communication a person uses. It gives some clues as to where to look and what to do in order to help autistic people use their natural mechanisms to learn and develop social and communicative skills.

Now that more and more personal accounts written by autistic individuals have become available, we have a unique opportunity to learn about their own explanations of some phenomena and to get an idea about their inside perspective. For many years autistic people have been publishing information, trying to communicate the existence of the misinterpretations of their differences, without much professional notice. They are trying to explain something that most of non-autistic people have never experienced.

That effort alone can be complex; in addition, they are trying to speak in the language of typical non-autistics, not in their own language. Many of them have had to learn to translate between the languages. Besides, the ideas are unconventional to most of the audience. 

The ‘What they say’ sections throughout the book help the reader to see through the eyes of people with autism and to listen to their problems and experiences first hand.

The ‘What we can do to help’ sections contain practical recommendations on what to do in order to help autistic individuals in certain areas of functioning.

Throughout the book examples are offered to illustrate different phenomena of autistic perception, thinking, language and communication. The use of ‘he’ or ‘she’ should be taken to imply both genders.

You can purchase the second edition of Olga’s book here and find her other works, also published by Jessica Kingsley Press, by browsing the collection here. If you’d like to follow Olga and her work online, you can visit her blog or find her on Facebook.

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