Communicating is hard, really hard. Especially when one or more participants has some type of communication difficulty (which most PDAers have) or participants are communicating with those of a different language or neurology. When it comes to PDA there are also extra barriers to communication in the form of demands.
For PDAers, everything can be a percieved demand, communicating is no different. Communicating involves many tasks, some so subtle or inherent that most people do not realise they are doing them until it is pointed out. For PDAers, even those subtle or inherent communication tasks can be a demand that is avoided.
These include (but are certainly not limited to) speaking, listening, responding, thinking, reacting in socially appropriate ways (verbally, using body language, emotionally, ect), non-verbal communication, tone of voice, taking turns, ect.
Any or all of these can become demands at any point. Coupled with an Autistic way of communicating, extra communication difficulties such as Auditory Processing Disorder or Selective Mutism and other issues which can affect communication such as Sensory Processing Disorder, makes communicating effectively with PDAers can become a bit of a minefield.
All people are unique, even PDAers, and so each individual will require different accomodations to help facilitate effective communication. However, there are some basic ‘rules’ which might help lay the ground for better communication. Here are some of my top tips for communicating with PDAers:
- Don’t – the first tip, don’t communicate, unless it’s important or the PDAer wants you to communicate. Too much communication can be overwhelming and demanding. Sometimes you may need to reduce how much you and others communicate with PDAers and sometimes even remove the demand completely (not an easy task). Some PDAers might be fine with communicating lots and may even seek it out, so knowing each individual’s needs and preferences in this regard is important too. Basically, if communicating appears to be too much for a certain PDAer then stop communicating where possible, reduce it to only the most neccessary of communication.
- Keep it simple – often short and sweet is best. Depending on the individual, you may be more successful in communicating if you keep it simple. Explain exactly, in simple terms, what you want and what you expect in response. For example “Do you want this cake? Yes or no?” This doesn’t work for every individual and may exacerbate problems with some, it may be a case of trail and error to see what does and doesn’t work, but often keeping messages short and to the point can help a lot.
- Use alternate communication means – verbal communication especially, is very difficult for some. Using alternative means can make things easier and reduce the overall demands. Communication methods such as written messages (pen and paper, text, email), pictures (drawings, pecs cards, emojis, gifs), non-verbal (sign language, body language, pointing), song (singing, rhyming, chanting), jokes, ect. There are many advantages to various alternative communication methods, emoji for example help communicate emotion for those who struggle to express and understand emotion in themselves and others. Written or sign language can help with those who struggle to hear and understand verbally. Finding what works for all participants involved can help improve communication vastly.
- Don’t force eye contact – it’s well known that eye contact for autistics is uncomfortable, and for some even painful. Forcing or expecting eye contact is a big no no. Many autistics struggle to understand verbal communication when they are giving eye contact, it’s usually best to be aware that many find it easier to process speech when they are looking elsewhere. Some find it helps communication when they give the appearance of making eye contact whilst actually looking at another part of someone’s face, others simply cannot look near people while listening at the same time. It might be helpful to figure out what works best for you both (can you cope without the PDAer looking near you while communicating? Can they cope with looking at you every so often? Would it be easier to have a signal they can give to show they are listening without having to look at you?)
- Give plenty of time and space – PDAers generally have a slower processing speed when it comes to communicating, this is further impacted by needing time and space to process demands and find a way around avoidance. When communicating it’s important to give plenty of time and space for the PDAer to receive what you’ve communicated, understand your intent, process this, work through any emotional response, formulate a response, give the response and process everything. How long this all takes may vary depending on many factors.
- Try not to use confusing language – for some reason most people rarely use direct speech and prefer to use convoluted ways of communicating what they mean (using metaphors, similes, local sayings, slang, ect). This can be confusing for some PDAers and can interfere with effective communication. It can be helpful to think about what it is you are trying to convey in your communication and try to ensure you are communicating that directly. However, some PDAers actually prefer convoluted communication and may find it easier to both express and understand others when using this way of communicating. This is often because saying what you mean can be a demand for some while communicating in roundabout ways is less demanding (for example, saying “is it dinner time yet?” to mean ‘I’m hungry and want something to eat’). It really does depend on the individual.
- Avoid emotion – some PDAers really struggle with expressing emotion, controlling their emotions and recieving other’s emotions. They may refuse to discuss emotions, react emotionally to most things and/or react badly to communication involving emotions. It may be helpful when communicating to try to avoid emotion – keep your communication free of emotion (positive and nagative depending on the individual), don’t ask nor communicate about emotions or emotive subjects, and ignore any emotional responses from the PDAer. Again, this depends on the individual, some may like the emotional responses within communication or find it essential for understanding what’s being communicated. Some may only be able to cope with positive emotions whereas others may find the opposite. It may be essential to be on alert to a PDAers emotional responses as a way of understanding how they are in that moment, expressing emotion is a means of communicating too after all. For some, emotional responses may be completely seperate from how they are actually feeling whereas for others it may be the only way they can communicate certain things.
- Be willing to adapt – communicating with PDAers may be confusing if the ways they communicate change often, one day they might only communicate via text, the next day they may insist on verbal communication, the next they may refuse or be unable to communicate at all. Demand avoidance makes it hard to use the same techniques too often so changing things up can often help, being able to go with the flow and adapt to these changes can help facilitate communication and make the PDAer feel more relaxed, safe and understood.
- Be aware of when communication needs to stop – because communicating is so hard, PDAers can sometimes quickly reach their limit. It can be difficult for PDAers to convey this and so you may find they seem okay only to suddenly explode or shutdown for seemingly no apparent reason. Being aware of any subtle signals that show when a PDAer is close to overload, having a set signal they can use, allowing them to stop communication as needed, having a set ending time or regular breaks can all help. By being aware that they may not be able to communicate as much/often/long as other people you can find ways of reducing the demand and stress of communicating while ensuring it is not a negative experience.
- Don’t allow miscommunication to fester – there’s bound to be miscommunication sometimes, given the complex needs and variability of PDAers communication style. When miscommunication occurs it can be helpful to either work through the misunderstanding to better clarify or move on and forget about it. There’s no point in refusing to understand or move on from a misunderstanding as this will only cause more friction. Repeating the same mistakes which led to the misunderstanding is unlikely to help as well, unless you are willing to try changing things to break through the misunderstanding or equip the PDAer with the skills to understand this time around; depending on what the communication misunderstanding is and how important it is. Often it’s better to let it go and find a different way of communicating that is more effective.
- Don’t play the blame game – it takes two people to effectively communicate, both sides need to make an effort to try to reach understanding. When it comes to Autism there is so much information written about how Autistics are the ones lacking something or are not trying hard enough or are too confusing or refuse to communicate with non-autistics. This is incredibly unfair and paints the picture that only one side is at fault for any breakdown in communication. In actuality any difficulty in communication is due to both sides being unable to find enough common ground to figure out a way of effectively communicating. No one person or side is ‘at fault’ unless they are actively refusing to make steps to communicate better. When it comes to an adult and child communicating the onus is generally on the adult to make steps to help the child communicate better. It’s unfair to expect a child, especially one who may have extra needs which make communicating more difficult, to take the blame for any breakdown in communication with an adult. So if there is difficulty when communicating with someone, try to look at the problem from all sides and work out where the problem might be – are the means of communicating being used a hindrance to one of you? is there an unmet need interfering with the communication? is the language one of you using too ambiguous or lacking in information? If you can find the problem you can work together to resolve it and make communicating easier.
- Try to make communication a positive experience – if you look at the way society communicates, it can often be seperated into several categories including communicating important information, developing relationships/connections, expressing thoughts and feelings, for fun, ect. Sometimes communication with PDAers can become more negative than positive, this can result in them refusing to want to communicate. It can often be helpful to restrict communication with PDAers into conveying important information and enjoyable communication. This makes it easier on the PDAer and ensures that a large majority of communication is positive for them. This will hopefully make it easier for them to communicate and mean they will communicate even more in the future.
- Try not to expect only certain communication – I cringe when I hear people saying “use your words” to people, as if using words were easy. Far too much emphasis is placed on verbal communication or socially expected ways of communicating, it makes far harder for those who cannot meet these expectations. If someone is struggling to communicate one way then try a different way, don’t insist the person struggling continues to use a communication style that just isn’t working, find a different way, make it easier for then to communicate. Verbal communication makes up such a small part of our whole communication, insisting on using it for every little thing only makes communicating harder.
- Ask – because we are all different, we may need very different communication accomodations. It might be most helpful to ask the PDAer how they prefer to communicate, they may be able to explain to you the best way to create effective communication methods. If they are unable to tell you then you may need to use trial and error to figure out what the best way of communicating is, keeping in mind that this may change at any moment due to certain things becoming demands.
- Accept that you may not always be able to communicate – due to the difficulty of communication and level of demand avoidance, there may be times when communication just doesn’t happen. The PDAer may be simply unable or unwilling to accept your communication with them, they may be unable to respond or communicate certain things, communicating might just be too much of a demand or other issues may make communicating impossible. There may be times when you have to accept that you can’t communicate certain things or anything, that you might need to reduce or remove communication altogether. This may be temporary or permanent. This may be difficult to accept. There’s no easy road unfortunately and it might hurt to know that someone you care about just cannot or will not communicate with you. Remember that every person has the right to decide if they wish to communicate or not and each individual has the right to their emotions regarding this, as long as those choices do not harm other people. It might be helpful to have someone you talk to if communicating with a PDAer (or anyone really) negatively affects you.
- Remember, all behaviour is communication – especially when other forms of communication has broken down, humans resort to behaviour to communicate needs. Recognise that ‘kids (and adults) do well when they can’ Dr Ross Green and that if a person is behaving in a difficult or unusual way that it’s because they are communicating that they have an unmet need that needs addressing. If you are struggling to communicate with an individual then look to their behaviour and try to work out what could be causing them to act this way, finding the cause can usually yield a solution that will improve the situation and effective communication may resume.
- Using a third person can help – if communication between 2 people is struggling then sometimes having an extra pair of eyes and ears can help. Someone else might be able to work out where the problem lies or understand what is being communicated better. Some people feel it’s easier to communicate with or through certain people than others so don’t be afraid to get another person involved if it will help assist communication.
- Yes means no and no means yes – demand avoidance means that even when we can communicate we may not always be able to communicate correctly. A PDAer may be trying to say one thing but demand avoidance forces them to say something else, this then leads to frustration, distress and confusion for everyone involved. It can sometimes help to double check what they mean and use common sense to work out if they’ve actually said what they meant to say. But try not to presume you know what they want despite of what they say, there’s a fine line between figuring out when demand avoidance is twisting communication and when the PDAer is just not being listened to or taken seriously.
- Don’t blame yourself either – if communication breaks down. If you’ve done everything you can to bridge the communication gap but communication still broke down then try not to blame yourself, sometimes some things just aren’t able to be communicated or the differences in communication are just too big. This is no one’s fault. Working to ensure future communication is as effective as possible helps, while recognising that there’s only so much that can be done.