It’s What You Say, Not How You Say It

I was just involved in a workshop setting where the speaker made a comment that communication is 10% what you say, 35% how you say it, and 55% expression and body language. In other words, for most individuals, nonverbal cues and voice inflection inform about 90% of how they understand others around them. The presenter did not cite any scientific sources for this information, but I’ve heard other similar statistics. The truth remains that, in conversation, tone and nonverbal communication outweighs the verbal information in creating true understanding.

In the world of autism and Asperger’s these percentages are heavily skewed. In many cases, an autistic individual or an aspie will be hard pressed to translate tone or body language. Nonverbal cues may be largely, if not entirely, lost on him or her. Communication in this world is at least 90% exactly what you say. Not only does this affect how an autistic individual responds to you, but it also affects how he or she communicates in turn.

The terms flat-affect and mind-blind are sometimes applied to a child or adult with autism or Asperger Syndrome, giving a flawed and limited understanding of the difficulties these individuals have in comprehending and participating in normal conversation. It’s frustrating for both parties involved, and often communication will break down at such a basic level that each will walk away with a completely different understanding of the conversation that just took place. This is already a possibility with two neurotypicals conversing, but the difficulties are greatly exacerbated with autism.

Every individual with a spectrum disorder has a different potential for coping with these hurdles himself or herself. Someone who is pretty high-functioning will have an easier time making self-accommodations. Deeper on the spectrum, the individual will have a harder time translating the nonverbal and inflected communications. Here are some tips if you know you are speaking to someone on the spectrum.

  • Spell everything out. Explain how your emotions. Be very literal in explaining the details of your points. Be careful about assumptions that the other person will draw necessary inferences from your speech.
  • Keep it verbal. Try to avoid relying on hand gestures or expressions to get a point across. The aspie or autistic individual may not even be looking directly at you, and, even if he or she was, such nonverbal cues may be partially or entirely lost.
  • Keep it literal. Idioms, expressions, metaphors – all of these can be problematic to an individual on the spectrum. “She had eyes of fire,” “I would kill for a drink,” can really mess with one’s mind when it works on a very literal level.
  • Slow it down. Give the aspie time to process through everything you are saying. Pause after important points or if the other person seems to be straining to concentrate.

I know it can be tough to adjust your own communication style to cater to someone’s needs when they have a social disorder like Asperger Syndrome or autism, but trust me when I say that the other person sincerely wants to understand you as much as you want to be understood. He or she is putting a great deal of effort into processing your conversation. Being mindful of his or her needs will help you lower those communication barriers to a certain extent.