Parents of children on the Autism Spectrum

Communication; understandings

People on the autism spectrum usually have social and communication difficulties. Many find it hard to read other people’s body language and facial expressions and can have a very literal understanding of language which can make communication difficult in all sorts of social situations. Most parents we talked with discussed the difficulties their children had with communication. Many children had delayed speech when they were young (see 'Early signs; developmental milestones') and as they grew older other communication difficulties became apparent. A few of the children hadn't developed speech and communicated using British Sign Language or pictures.

Interacting with people
"He’s not very good in a group of people” was a typical comment from the parents we interviewed. Many of the children didn't understand rules of polite behaviour such as saying “hello” to people without prompting, or knowing when to smile and make eye contact. Some of the children argued instead of talking about things and didn't know when to end a discussion which some parents said could be both trying and tiring. One family found it easier to communicate via online instant messenger within the home because it avoided misunderstandings about body and facial language.

One mother described how her son “will scrutinise his change in the shop with such dedication that it usurps the shopkeeper and they feel threatened.” She went on to say how people feel uncomfortable because they don’t know how to respond; she suspects that some see him as a “very rude young man”. Several parents talked about how their children didn't smile very often (see ‘Early signs; developmental milestones’) and other people such as family members or friends commented on that. It was clearly difficult for parents; one mother gave her son tokens for smiling as he did it so rarely and another mother described her son as “quiet in himself and sad”.

Being literal
Many parents talked about how their children were very literal in how they understood language and how this caused misunderstandings. As one parent commented, everything was “very black or white without any reading between the lines”.

Another mother described how panicked she was when she lost her son in the Science Museum in London. When she asked him why he didn't ask for help from a member of staff - as she had taught him - he said he was not lost, his mother was. Some children didn’t know how to interpret jokes, sarcasm and everyday metaphors, and this had caused them some difficulties.

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Many of the children didn'tt engage in pretend play and this limited their games with other children. Often, problems would also arise when children interpreted the rules of games, such as football, very rigidly and became upset when other children varied the rules or decided to play something else altogether.

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Some parents described how their children had a strong sense of injustice and would sometimes feel that they were victimised. Being told off was a problem for some children and a few parents described how their children were convinced that they were always right or, as one parent said, “He is convinced that everyone else in the world is stupid and he is fine.”

Some of the children had very good memories and would remember events that upset them for a long time, sometimes several years. One mother described how “if something bad has happened on one week, that is the one thing that he remembers. Of all the good stuff that has happened, it is the one bad thing that plays on his mind”.

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In addition to a very literal understanding, some parents described how blunt and honest their children could be. This caused their parents some embarrassment or, at times, amusement.

Last reviewed July 2017.

Last updated November 2010.

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