Communication. 85% non verbal, 15% verbal.
There’s speech, tone of voice, body language, facial movements, body stance, terminology, hand movements, timing, lies, literal and non literal meanings, eye movement, other verbal noises, silence and pauses between speaking. Even for the most social of neurotypical people communication can still be problematic. For autistic and PDA people it can be extremely difficult bordering on impossible.
There are many explanations for why communication can be difficult for people. Auditory processing disorder, blindness or poor eyesight, deafness, learning disability, slow processing speed, literal thinking and many more. Not every autistic/PDA person will have these. Some people may have many difficulties and some may have none at all. It’s commonly known that, even without these, communication is difficult for autistic people. Difficulties with communication isn’t exclusive to introverted people either, extroverts and social people can still experience issues with understanding communicating and communicating their needs and this can cause negative feelings from not being able to meet their preferences.
We use communication is a wide variety of ways and for a wide variety of needs. Humans have moved far beyond that of other animals and while we still have a need to communicate danger, love and hunger to our fellow beings we now have an incredibly wide range of wants and needs that we communicate every day. There are also more humans now than ever before meaning the chance of having to communicate with someone we haven’t met before is greater than ever. There are also many more ways of communicating than previously, everything from text and social media to music and art. Nearly every action a human does is a form of communicating and what we communicate ranges so widely that it’s not surprising that we notice when someone isn’t communicating in a way we expect. Even parents who have become used to their child’s individual ways of communicating will notice more discrepancies with their peers than ever before, due to an increased knowledge of what is expected, the range of information available and the increased population which allows us access to an ever increasing number of fellow humans to compare against. No wonder parenting is like a minefield.
So how does this all apply to PDA?
Since PDA is (as far as we can make out) an autistic condition, there will obviously be problems with expected communication. One of the main criteria for PDA is language delay with a good degree of catch up. Although it’s been established that this doesn’t apply to everyone and could be explained as an avoidance to communicate verbally when it’s perceived as a demand. Another main trait of PDA is appearing sociable but lacking depth. It’s known that PDA people are very good at exchanging typical pleasantries such as saying ‘hello’ and ‘thank you’. It’s when the topic moves to emotional or in-depth conversation that the PDAer seems to struggle. This may be because they have learnt rote speech, a type of speech that is copied from a previous similar situation where the lines used were received favourable or had the required response. For example, a child may have learnt that when they say ‘please can I have that’ and then point at something that people will give them what they ask for. Of course most humans do this but if the situation were to be changed and it called for a change in speech, most typical people would be able to change their speech to ‘please can I borrow this for an hour’. The PDA person may struggle to change their speech in this circumstance and will rely on the rote learnt speech instead, not understanding why it then doesn’t work. This is very obvious in situations where the person is expecting a particular question but then receives a different question only to not be able to change their intended response, resulting in confusion and embarrassment. For example, one time I was sitting alone in a busy café, my table had the only empty chairs so when a boy came up to my table and started to speak I expected him to ask if anyone was sitting at my table (because that’s usually what people ask when wanting someone’s chair), however the boy asked if he could borrow a chair. I automatically responded with ‘no’ and he walked away shamefaced, much to the pleasure of his friends who mocked him, whilst I sat stunned at the mistake I had made but too embarrassed myself to correct the blunder.
PDA people develop a wide range of rote speech over the course of their lives, enough to seem incredibly competent at communicating verbally. They are also very good at learning specific non verbal communication to pass off competency in social situations. It’s when a situation calls for something new and unexpected that the PDAer may struggle. PDAers also struggle when communicating intimate and emotional communication, I know for myself that any topic involving emotions will be met with silence and/or crying. Of course PDA is a spectrum and so what may be correct for one individual may not be correct for another.
Many professionals seem to be focused on speech when it comes to communication, missing the obvious fact that most communication is done non verbally. Children when young learn to point at what they want way before they can articulate the words to ask for things. Parents can often convey meaning with a simple look, everyone knows what their mother is saying when she gives her warning look. Even silence can be used as a tool for communication. Autistic and PDA people may struggle to decipher non verbal communication used by others, even NT people do too to an extent. Literature is filled with women giving subtle hints towards her unassuming male counterpart and then feeling annoyed when they ‘don’t get’ what the woman is trying to say. And everyone knows that when a baby cries it’s because they need something (though what that something is may take a while to figure out). So why do professionals focus so much on verbal communication, even going so far as to assume that someone who cannot speak must be unintelligent. The focus should be on other forms of communication, especially in these days when there are many tools available for those who cannot speak. There’s even a tech called the Eye Gaze where people use their eyes to choose words or phrases on a computer pad to facilitate verbal communication, for those who struggle to use their bodies to communicate.
So how does non verbal communication impact PDA people?
The most obvious is their behaviour. What happens when a person is so anxious about a certain thing but they lack the ability to verbally express how they feel? They react in other ways. Someone once said all behaviour is communication, this is so true when it comes to PDA people. How they feel will be expressed in the way they act and react. If something causes a fear reaction in them they will express their fear by avoiding it, by reacting emotionally, by distracting or distancing themselves or others from the fear, by lashing out. Much like a baby might cry when something scares them, much like a child may run away when met with something scary, much like an adult may become aggressive when faced with a phobia. Neurotypical people have developed the ability to control how their bodies react to certain stimuli, they have also learnt how to express their emotions in ways the public deem acceptable. If a dog is met with something it doesn’t like it barks. You may be able to teach a dog to sit when it finds something unpleasant, some dogs cannot be taught, why should humans be any different. The human world nowadays is so complex, there is so much to learn that it makes sense that a great number of people struggle. There’s simply too much to learn and too many fixed expectations that it isn’t possible or reasonable to expect every human to meet them. Even more so if they have a different way of processing information that makes learning these subtle techniques difficult to master, even when determined. Add to it that many of these are natural for NT’s to learn but seem unnatural for autistic/PDA people. Is it any wonder that autistic/PDA people struggle to adapt socially. It’s also been noted by some people that socialising doesn’t reap the same benefits for autistic people as it does for NT’s. Autistics themselves have stated that they feel exhausted by social events and that they don’t bring about a natural reward in the brain like it does for NT’s. Usually when people socialise endorphins are released giving a feel good feeling throughout the body, this doesn’t seem to happen (or at least not as much) in autistic people. If socialising doesn’t give us any natural benefits then is it any wonder why we would struggle to want to learn how to perfect it.
PDA people will struggle with a range of non verbal communication, whilst they may pick up on emotional signals better than some NT people they will struggle to respond appropriately to these. This seems to be because PDA people feel emotions more intense whilst at the same time also struggling to feel some emotions and having difficulty overall when understanding and communicating emotions of their own. Some may be oblivious to some emotions and emotional responses from others whilst some PDA people will be highly tuned into these, making even the slightest emotional response from another person almost painful. Some parents have expressed an increase in anxiety and avoidance when they communicate any emotion, positive or negative, and have adopted bland tones and communication styles in order to help their child cope. PDA people have also been know to have an increased emotional response to other people’s emotions, getting angry when others become upset, even to the point of lashing out physically. This may be because they feel overwhelmed by their own emotions in response and are unable to control their behaviour, displaying negativity as a way of protecting themselves from emotional hurt. They may be aware of the hurt they are causing others by reacting this way but are unable to control their responses, they may be oblivious to how the other person feels in response because their mind and body is so overwhelmed by their own feelings that the outside world becomes distant to them. As a result of having heightened emotions but lowered understanding and control, PDA people will react impulsively when they feel emotions, either their own or others, and be unable to stop themselves. Emotions and stress may be built up over time or may appear suddenly, their moods change quickly and this makes it even harder for them to control. This is when it’s most important to remember that behaviour is communication. The PDA person cannot say how they are feeling, especially when their mood changes suddenly or they have no idea what they are feeling. By monitoring their behaviour, parents can gauge what their children are communicating by their actions.
Verbally, PDA people may be quite expressive, even being able to covey emotions, this can be deceptive and mask the communication difficulties that the person has underneath. This may be more obvious to those who have spoken to the PDAer on several occasions as opposed to those who have only met the individual once or twice briefly. This explains why PDA people can be great at making friends but struggle to keep them. PDA people are good at masking their difficulties, holding everything in until the social event is over. This leads people to believe their are no problems and that the individual is either exaggerating their problems are that their parents are lying. Anyone experienced with PDA people will be able to spot the small signs that the individual is unconsciously communicating.
Society expects quite a lot in terms of acceptable communication. You have to moderate your tone of voice depending on the situation, you have to change your facial features depending on the topic, the verbal noises you use such as sighing and tutting have to be socially correct, the words you use have to be accurate according to the topic and what’s expected, the way we sit, what we do with our arms and legs all depends on who we are communicating with and what you are trying to convey, even what we wear helps or hinders our communication. Formal attire or casual clothing depending on the situation. There’s so much to remember and get right, when you factor in things like sensory issues and processing difficulties then the whole thing turns into a mine field of potential mistakes. All of these things become even more difficult to accomplish correctly when the person exhibiting them is under stress or anxiety. When overwhelmed, being able to move your body and verbalise sounds in socially acceptable ways is incredibly hard. Some of the things I struggle with mostly when highly anxious, overwhelmed and/or experiencing meltdown/shutdown include (but aren’t limited to) moderating tone of voice, controlling speech and trying to say anything ‘wrong’ or inappropriate, moving at all when in shutdown, making eye control.