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The Autism Spectrum: Speech Pattern Challenges and Humor

Updated: Jun 21

For many individuals living on the autism spectrum, from children to teens to adults, social communication and interaction presents daily challenges. The effects of autism spectrum disorder are mainly impairing to the way members of the autistic community understand reciprocal conversation skills and recognizing non-verbal social cues, such as facial expressions, body language, and maintaining appropriate eye contact in a conversation. The delays in learning these skills cause a lot of misinterpretation and misunderstandings, which the autistic community is often faulted for and expected to overcompensate by learning the social communication skills that are unnatural and unfamiliar to autistic people despite the scrutiny involved.

On top of those challenges, another contributing effect of autism, particularly in children, are the unusual speech patterns that autistic people convey with. The social expectations set by the neurotypical population calls for communication through the ability to vocalize thoughts and sentences with a fluctuating sound of the pitch. The skill of fluctuating the pitch is known as inflection, and many autistic people speak without the ability to use the inflection that neurotypicals are innately equipped with.

As a result of the lack of vocal inflection, as well as an impediment with prosody, meaning rhythm and intonation of the voice, autistic people often get misinterpreted when attempting to communicate their version of humor and sarcasm. To neurotypicals, the communication of pitch when speaking allows for the understanding of how certain words are meant by the other person in a conversation. Since many autistic people live with an inability to raise their vocal pitch, often speaking with a very flat and monotone voice, their way of being sarcastic and funny can easily be misunderstood as derogatory and impolite.

There are autistic people who do not live with the lack of vocal inflection, and there are some autistic people who can improve that and develop the ability to inflect. However, other barriers correlated to autism can impose communication challenges, such as issues with reading emotions in facial expressions, which could be misinterpreted in social conversations as a lack of caring when that is likely not the intention of the autistic person. These experiences and communication struggles do not reflect the entire autistic community, but for some, it presents daily struggles that certain therapies and social skills courses can address.

Another speech issue that autistic people deal with is known as idiosyncratic speech. Idiosyncratic is a formal word for "unusual" and autistic people may converse in a manner where they speak while assuming that their conversation partner innately knows what the autistic person is saying. This is not the case much of the time, and especially if the autistic person lacks the skills to clarify what they are trying to say, the idiosyncratic speech could lead to miscommunication easily. An example of idiosyncratic speech could be if an autistic person is discussing their restricted interest in great detail, the restricted interest could be the Harry Potter movies about wizards, castles and magic, and an autistic person could say, "In the first Harry Potter movie, Harry is accepted into Hogwarts and placed on the Gryffindor team."

If the person the autistic person is talking to about Harry Potter hasn't seen or is unfamiliar with Harry Potter, that sentence in the conversation about Hogwarts could lead to confusion and disinterest if the autistic person does not provide clarification or goes on about Harry Potter for too long without reading the other person's non-verbal cues to change the topic or ask if there is mutual interest.

One more speech issue in ASD is known as "speech cluttering," which entails a lack of a fluent speaking style, and involves the autistic person speaking at a rapid rate of speech. The rate of speech in a sentence is known as a cadence, and due to the "speech cluttering," others may have trouble understanding what the autistic person is trying to say. The speech cluttering also entails repetitive phrasing, more filler words than needed, and pausing in sentences in an unusual manner.

Fortunately, in spite of these various speech challenges that come with ASD, there are therapeutic and behavioral programs out there that can address these deficits. Especially if the therapy is implemented early enough, the autistic community can be taught to modify their prosody and related issues to be more understood and allow for more social connections. It is important that neurotypicals understand that the autistic individuals oftentimes do not intentionally mean to speak with mean-spirited words. The autistic people live with different brain functioning that causes a lack of understanding of how to speak in a socially appropriate manner, especially with sarcasm and humor in mind.

With more patience and effort, both autistic people and the neurotypical population can learn from each other. Even if an autistic person takes a prolonged time to develop appropriate prosody, inflection, and the ability to convey their humorous personalities, that is part of living on the autism spectrum. The autism spectrum can be a challenge and a unique advantage when re-framed.


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