Communication is a dynamic process. It goes way beyond the words we say. Many people interchange the words communication, language, and speech; but these terms are not synonymous. Speech refers to the actual words or sounds that are coming from your mouth. Language is the grammar, meaning and ability to use the words you have. When people talk about language, they are referring to both verbal and non-verbal language. Communication encompasses both language and speech, but it is more than that. It is the ability to share thoughts and experiences in a meaningful way while taking in, processing, and responding to the person you are talking with.
When you stop to think about all the elements of communication, it is a wonder that we don’t have more miscommunication. It is such a multi-level skill! The ability to hear the words someone else is saying is only one small part of dynamic communication that involves the ability to read facial expressions, gestures, tone of voice, and body posture at the same time as listening to what the person has to say. Once you’ve taken in all of this information, then you need to process it and decide how to respond.
Communication is a broadband process made up of many single band processes. Speech, language, and each different type of non-verbal language are the single bands that make up the broadband process of communication. If a person has difficulty processing any one of these bands, pieces of communication will be lost and will be difficult to interpret correctly and respond appropriately to the message being sent. The ability to take in and simultaneously process these multiple modes of communication is an automatic process for most of us. It happens rapidly and without thought. Often times we do not even need to hear all of what is being said before we have begun to formulate our response! When we lose focus or are unable to process a particular band of communication, this can lead to breakdowns and misinterpretations. Think about how easy it is to misinterpret what is being communicated when you are talking on the telephone or reading an e-mail. It becomes increasingly difficult to process accurately the message being sent as you take away pieces of the broadband experience that is known as dynamic communication. When talking on the phone, you have lost the ability to gather information from your speaking partner’s facial expressions, gestures, and body language. You are still able to hear the words they are saying, as well as use cues from their tone of voice and loudness to aid in processing the information being presented; but it can be a challenge. This becomes even more difficult with e-mail. You are unable to use any of the non-verbal cues that are crucial for accurate interpretation of messages. How often do you read an e-mail and begin thinking about it in one way, only to find out that isn’t how the sender intended the message at all. This can be a very frustrating experience.
I compare the communication abilities of children with autism spectrum disorders to the process of trying to communicate through e-mail. You can be fairly successful at this form of communication when you know someone well, which is also true when communicating with people with autism spectrum disorders. When you are unfamiliar with the person on the other end of the e-mail, it is easier to have miscommunication unless you are talking about factual information or have the same frame of reference. Children with autism spectrum disorders have difficulty in processing and using broadband communication. As a matter of fact, this difficulty is one of the core deficits of autism: known as experience sharing communication. While they can be very effective at talking about special interest areas or presenting factual information, they often miss the social aspect of communicating. They have not learned the process by which we share our experiences in a dynamic back and forth exchange; this is the essence of experience sharing communication. Often times, they miss the non-verbal cues that let us know when our listener is not understanding or no longer interested. Children on the autism spectrum have difficulty in interpreting more than one mode of communication at a time. They are single band processors. This means that if they are hearing the words you are saying, they are not able simultaneously to read facial expressions and gestures, or interpret the tone of your voice. Without the ability to process multiple bands of communication, it becomes increasingly hard to respond in a meaningful way.
Helping children on the autism spectrum to begin using experience sharing communication and become broadband communication processors must be a top priority in treatment. This is one of the ways that the Relationship Development Intervention® Program works to remediate this core deficit of autism. Improving the ability to communicate meaningfully is a necessary component of improving a person’s quality of life.