As painful as it is to admit, society has never had the most perfect relationship with autistics. They have been regarded as savants, eccentrics and socially clumsy. Many have been regarded as obsessive, unable to read social cues and ‘read the room.’
The real tragedy, though, is that society at large is still not fully educated on why this is the case. Autism is a very complicated condition that covers a wide range of different individuals who manifest the disorder in their own way. The quirks of one individual doesn’t necessarily mean it will be found in another (even if they both end up having difficulty in social interaction).
However, it’s always good to have a solid first step to knowing why conversations with a lot of autistics can be awkward.
Sound is one of those big reasons why.
Many people often underestimate the role of sound in their lives. You may hardly think about it when conversing. Many more are not aware of how their brains actively filter it out in order to remain focused on one thing. A lot of people are not even aware of how certain tones and frequencies are neurologically picked up and interpreted.
In the minds of many autistic individuals, little to none of these functions are working properly. The infamous breakdown of a ‘normal’ conversation occurs because a normal mind notices these little ‘gaps’ in their own subconscious way.
For example, you have a lack of eye contact. Another would be a noticeable tendency to stress certain syllables. It can also be the opposite where an autistic tends to have somewhat slurred or mumbled speech.
All of this points to a very troubled relationship between an autistic person’s brain and the sound being perceived by the ears. It doesn’t even have to indicate a problem with hearing (which is technically deafness, not autism). It’s quite possible for an autistic person’s eardrums to be working just fine, but the way the signals are surging from the ear to the brain is another matter entirely.
There are a few names for this particular aspect of ASD (one of them being auditory processing disorder). Yet, however you call it, the effects on an autistic individuals social interactions are undeniable.
It delays language learning. – When the brain cannot properly filter clear distinction between vowels and syllables, it logically follows that they pick up spoken language much later and less perfectly than others.
It makes them oblivious to subtler shifts in tone. – When the brain is more susceptible to processing louder sounds, softer and subtler changes in sound can become harder to pick up. And more often than not, it leads to a lot of misunderstandings.
It worsens their tendency to take things literally. – Another trait that autistic individuals are known for is a bad tendency towards literalism. Some say there are other factors behind this beside sound, but they still struggle enough as it is with less figurative utterances and find it more burdensome to comprehend more abstract ones.
Now that you know this though, you can be rest assured that there are already a number of ways parents can still intervene in this area of weakness.
For instance, there are brain training methods that help exercise the mind both passively and actively in observing the sudden shifts in sound (the Tomatis® Method is one example). You can also start talking to your child more slowly and in more literal terms before gradually educating them on how to better understand social cues in speech.
It can be difficult. It can be complicated. But at the very least, understanding the role of sound gives you a better start when interacting with those on the spectrum.