Why online communication can be easier for people with autism 

On April 4, 2017 by Kristen Schroeder

In our research on language in the autism spectrum, we are constantly thinking about how language is used and understood by those with various manifestations of this condition. However, the idea of preference hadn’t come to my mind until I read a 2009 study by Penny Benford and PJ Standed. Through questionnaires, they asked autistic adults to share what their preferred means of communication is and why.

The response was, over and again, that non face-to face interactions (like email) were preferred. We can imagine that a lay interpretation may be to simply say that people with autism just might dislike interpersonal interactions, or find them to be hard because of intrinsic difficulties with social interaction. However, the explanations that came with these responses take the story in a different direction.

What makes non-synchronous forms of communication—that is to say forms of communication in which there is a delay between exchanges (i.e. written communication)—easier is the permanence of the message. When responding to an email or Facebook post, you have the text available to you to go back to, re-read when things aren’t clear, and even double check what a word like ‘it’ originally referred to. Also, you have more time to let your interlocutor’s message sink in and more time to plan your best response back.

In this sense, non-synchronous forms of communication facilitate language processing. Perhaps some of the difficulties that may arise in face- to- face conversation may be related to the added language load that real-time communication brings.  In conversation, we are constantly linking together who and what our interlocutor is talking about but without the ability to pause and visually scan back over the conversation to recheck parts of the message and process them for a second time if needed.

However, we know that reading comprehension is not always something that comes easy to those with autism. Even when controlled for intellectual ability, persons with autism underperform their peers in reading comprehension across disciplines. For example, when solving math problems persons with autism tend to have greater difficulty in solving word problems than equation based tasks.  So, how does this square with the idea that written language is relatively easier?

I turned to a 2004 study by Irene O’Conner and Perry Klein to get my head around that question. They were specifically interested in the imbalance between having very good decoding skills (the ability to read single words) but subsequent poor comprehension of the text as a whole. They were able to track the eye gaze of individuals with autism while they were reading and identified strategies that were shared among the more successful readers. They found that those went back to scan the text for anaphoric resolution were substantially better and understanding the text.

Perhaps better understanding the aspects of language that may trip up readers with autism can help us to develop autism-friendly technologies or writing guidelines to help further facilitate written communication.  This seems to be a promising path to help bridge our theoretical work on language processing to real world adaptations which can be useful for the autism community.

References

  1. Benford, P., & Standen, P. (2009). The internet: a comfortable communication medium for people with Asperger syndrome (AS) and high functioning autism (HFA)?, Journal of Assistive Technologies,3(2), 44-53.
  2. O’connor, I. M., & Klein, P. D. (2004). Exploration of strategies for facilitating the reading comprehension of high-functioning students with autism spectrum disorders. Journal of autism and developmental disorders34(2), 115-127.

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