Online Degrees Blog Communication difficulties in autism spectrum disorder

Communication difficulties in autism spectrum disorder

12 April
Little boy pronouncing sound O looking at mirror, professional woman therapist teaching kid right pronunciation.

Many individuals with autism encounter challenges in effective communication. Difficulties with both verbal and nonverbal communication can be frustrating. Still, there are a variety of therapies and alternative communication methods that can help people with autism facing language difficulties succeed in neurotypical spaces.

This post will dive into the types of communication barriers experienced by those with autism, how to recognize autism and speech delays early, and the types of therapies and accommodations that are available to aid those facing the communication challenges associated with autism.

Types of communication difficulties

Individuals with autism may approach communication in non-traditional ways and may experience verbal, nonverbal, and social communication challenges.

Language difficulties associated with ASD might include speaking in a flat tone or repeating words or phrases, known as echolalia. People with autism may also have a speech delay, meaning they may use childlike language even as adults, or they may not have developed speech at all.1 They also may have difficulty understanding sarcasm and figurative language.2

For individuals with autism, nonverbal communication might develop differently.

Facial expressions

Individuals with autism may face difficulty in understanding and expressing facial expressions, which are crucial for effective social interaction. Without adequate development of these skills, autistic individuals may have difficulty with interpreting social cues and engaging in meaningful social communication.

Body language

Similarly, individuals with autism may encounter challenges in understanding and utilizing body language effectively.

Underdeveloped nonverbal conversation skills can hinder their ability to engage in social interaction and may contribute to social communication difficulties.

Developing pre-language skills, such as oral language skills, may also present challenges for individuals on the autism spectrum. These difficulties can lead to repetitive or rigid language patterns and behaviors, further impacting their social interactions and communication skills.

Individuals who are neurotypical often use gestures like pointing to complement their verbal communication and typically maintain eye contact during conversations, those with autism may not exhibit these behaviors. They might not engage in typical body language or display facial expressions, which can sometimes lead to misunderstandings or difficulties in expressing their needs.

In particular, many social cues that are widely recognized by people who identify as neurotypical may be missed by someone on the autism spectrum. This can lead to awkwardness or confusion when a socially-expected script is not followed, making it hard for some people with autism to develop close relationships.3

Additional factors contributing to communication difficulties

Some communication difficulties may be connected with other symptoms of autism spectrum disorder. These symptoms may exacerbate the communication issues or may even be their root cause.

For example, many individuals with autism may experience difficulties with sensory sensitivity. Oversensitivity to sound may make it hard for a person with autism to focus solely on their conversation. In young children, this could also make it difficult to acquire language, as other sounds in the environment may cover up speech. Sensitivity to touch, smell, or visual stimuli may also be distracting, dragging a neurodivergent person’s attention away from communicating effectively.4

People with autism may also have difficulty recognizing others’ emotions or intentions, a skill sometimes referred to as Theory of Mind; this can make the undertone or unspoken implications of a conversation obscured to an individual with autism.5

Many neurodivergent people also struggle with executive dysfunction. When executive functioning is impaired, it can hinder someone's ability to initiate or maintain a focus on tasks, including communication tasks. Conversely, this can cause hyperfocus, in which a person can become so focused on their task that they lose awareness of what’s going on around them, including when someone tries to get their attention.6

Assessment and diagnosis

Early detection of the potential communication concerns associated with ASD can help prevent them or make them less severe. Autism can be detected as early as the toddler stage, with some symptoms including:

  • Failure to make eye contact or reciprocate body language, like smiling7
  • Not responding to their own name7
  • Echolalia (repeating sounds or phrases over and over)7
  • “Stimming” behaviors such as hand flapping or rocking back and forth7
  • Sensory sensitivity to textures, tastes, smells, or certain noises7

If a child is showing early signs of autism or delayed speech, a speech and language evaluation by a professional may help. This testing, performed by a qualified specialist in speech and language development, will assess various aspects of the child’s communication, as well as potential alternative causes, such as hearing loss.8

Communication strategies

Many tools can help those facing language difficulties communicate more effectively. Augmentative and alternative communication uses additional tools to enhance communication. This could range from body language to paper tools such as spelling boards to digital tools such as text-to-speech programs.9

Individuals with autism can also benefit from speech therapy. This therapy may help them learn both verbal and nonverbal communication strategies, including more expressive speech patterns, body language, or sign language.10

People with autism can also be trained in social skills. This usually involves face-to-face instruction with a teacher who can offer guidance in relationship building, conversation skills, and other areas.11

Supporting individuals with ASD

The family members or caregivers of a child with autism are the first experiences they'll have with social and linguistic development. These role models need to spend time with the child, intentionally developing these skills. Patience is key. It may take a child with autism extra time or effort to absorb what a neurotypical child might pick up quickly.12

Inclusive education and community support can also help a child with autism succeed. Research shows that modifying classroom environments and accommodating learning differences can improve outcomes for neurodivergent students.13

Research and innovation

Research into autism is ongoing and continually evolving.

Current studies are looking into ways to detect speech delays even earlier in childhood, augmenting communication with technology, and the effect parents have on the outcome of speech therapy and other treatments.14

New therapies are being explored for autism and other communication challenges as well. Drug trials are making use of both new and existing medications that may reduce the severity of the core symptoms. It’s important to note, however, that the diversity among those with autism makes it difficult to determine what therapies will work. Many medications work for only a subset of those with autism in their community.15

Success stories

Though autism can cause many difficulties, it is very possible to live a successful and fulfilling life with such a diagnosis.

Many successful performers, athletes, activists, scientists, entrepreneurs, and artists utilize their strengths and unique perspectives associated with autism.

Some famous names you might recognize—including actor Anthony Hopkins, climate activist Greta Thunberg, baseball star Jim Eisenreich, and novelist Helen Hoang—identify themselves as living with autism.

Many historical figures also may have lived with undiagnosed autism, including scientists Albert Einstein and Sir Isaac Newton, artist Leonardo da Vinci, and fairy-tale writer Hans Christian Andersen.16

Develop the skills you need to help your students communicate

The University of Kansas School of Education and Human Sciences (KU SOEHS) is here to help you attain your educational dreams.

KU’s online master’s programs in special education are ranked #1 Best Online Master's in Special Education Programs in the nation by U.S. News & World Report and are designed to help you build a more inclusive classroom environment for all of your students.17

If you’re ready to earn a master’s to impact your future and career trajectory, schedule a call to speak with an admissions outreach advisor today.

  1. Retrieved on March 15, 2024, from
  2. Retrieved on March 15, 2024, from
  3. Retrieved on March 15, 2024, from
  4. Retrieved on March 15, 2024, from
  5. Retrieved on March 15, 2024, from
  6. Retrieved on March 15, 2024, from
  7. Retrieved on March 15, 2024, from
  8. Retrieved on March 15, 2024, from
  9. Retrieved on March 15, 2024, from
  10. Retrieved on March 15, 2024, from
  11. Retrieved on March 15, 2024, from
  12. Retrieved on March 15, 2024, from
  13. Retrieved on March 15, 2024, from
  14. Retrieved on March 15, 2024, from
  15. Retrieved on March 15, 2024, from
  16. Retrieved on March 15, 2024, from
  17. Retrieved on March 15, 2024, from