Day#13 of our #AsIAmChallenge is about using Plain English when communicating.

We often think of autism’s major difficulties with communication and language as an almost exclusively childhood problem that is eventually resolved. It’s true that many on the spectrum do learn social skills as they mature, enabling them to make friends and build positive relationships with those around them.

Challenges in understanding language do not stop here, however. Autistic individual’s brains do not process sensory information in the same way or pace as those of us living without the condition do.

Similarly, introductions to the ideas of slang, sarcasm and voice pitch can be difficult to appreciate. Some may understand these easier than others but for the most part, problems with sensory processing and context blindness can make critical interactions hugely stressful for autistic individuals.

Their difficulty processing the sheer amount of information from the world around them can nonetheless frustrate successful interactions with peers and important public services. A lack of public awareness around these struggles can worsen the problem and negatively impact on the person’s self-esteem.

SPEECH

Speaking is a major part of communication for most people; verbal communication can be especially difficult for autistic individuals.

Some people are non-verbal, meaning that they cannot or do not speak. Some develop the use of spoken language, others do not, while others lose the ability to communicate verbally when they are in a stressful situation or environment. Just because an autistic person does not speak, doesn’t mean that they don’t have anything to say. Their efforts at communication, however, are often misunderstood and even dismissed.

Following verbal communication can also be challenging, even for autistic people who are verbal themselves. People with autism often require longer to process information and so can get lost when issued rote instructions, multiple questions or by a conversation’s quick pace.

This does not mean you should speak slower or louder to autistic people; rather, it means you may need to provide alternative communication options, avoid rote instructions and give a person sufficient time to answer your question before asking another.

DECODING LANGUAGE

Verbal communication has more to it than the ability to speak. When most people are very young, they learn most of their communication skills from their parents – this includes things like jokes, figures of speech and slang.

For autistic individuals, many of the unwritten rules of day-to-day conversation must be learned. Due to communication’s individual nature, however, it can be particularly tricky to actively teach those rules that work. This is because there are lots of grey areas and autistic peoples often think in very concrete, literal terms. This can cause lots of difficulty in language – when someone uses a figure of speech are they telling a joke or are they lying, for example?

These breakdowns in communication can cause lots of anxiety for autistic individuals in their daily lives and make the prospect of talking with someone very daunting. When we use language when interacting with an autistic person, it is important to be clear and more speech can often be less. It can take a little longer to think through at first, as we so naturally use idioms. Gradually, however, it becomes much easier and actually saves time in the long run by avoiding confusion.

USING PLAIN ENGLISH

Simply Put is a series of resources developed by the National Adult Literacy Agency to help organisations in Ireland communicate in Plain English. Plain English, the Agency explains, is a way of presenting information that helps people to understand it the first time they read or hear it. This approach involves using short, clear sentences and everyday words. It cuts out the jargon and small print that is often used in official documents and public information.

This approach is ideal for simplifying the sensory process for autistic individuals across a range of everyday scenarios. Just some of the ways you can do this include:

  • THINK OF THE PERSON READING YOUR INFORMATION: Think of the person reading your information. Make it clear whom you are writing to or about by using “I,” “we” and “you” where you can.
  • BE CONSISTENT WITH TERMS: To avoid confusing readers, use the same term for the same concept or thing throughout your document. For example, if you call something a standard, avoid later calling it a benchmark, a guideline or a norm.
  • USE ANY COLOUR & IMAGES APPROPRIATELY: Use any colour and images appropriately. If you use colour, make sure it‟s easy on the eye and has a clear purpose. If using images and charts, make sure they genuinely help explain the text. Most importantly, avoid busy background images, which can be distracting.
  • DEFINE UNFAMILIAR ABBREVIATIONS & ACRONYMS: As with technical terms, try to keep these to a minimum. If you even suspect they might not be familiar to your reader, spell them out.
  • EMPHASISE TEXT CAREFULLY: Only use bold to emphasise text. Keep capital letters to a minimum to avoid SHOUTING AT YOUR READER! Avoid underlining and putting phrases in italics, as these types of formatting tend to make text harder to read.

You can check out a full list of their guidelines on how to write in Plain English here!