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By Jennifer Chobotiuk (she/her), Andrea Hoeving, and Danielle Neer (she/her),

Learning Assistance Teachers’ Association (LATA) Executive Committee members

Throughout this article, we intentionally use identity-first language to acknowledge that autism is a neurological difference that is an integral part of a person’s identity.1

COMMUNICATION is a social act: we speak with others to share our needs, wants, and thoughts; or we listen to others so that we can better understand their needs, wants, and thoughts. The former is referred to as expressive language, while the latter is referred to as receptive language. This means that speaking and listening (i.e., verbal communication) are social skills.

Communication also may involve facial expressions, hand gestures, body posturing, symbols, written language, sign language, Braille, and other multisensory strategies. This is often referred to as non-verbal communication. While many of us think of communication as oral language, you can see that it is only a small component overall. Neurotypical people often rely heavily on oral language, while neurodivergent individuals may find oral language challenging. Non-verbal communication plays to the strengths of a visual processor, because it relies on visual stimulus.

Autistic learners often have difficulties with auditory processing, but have great strength in visual processing. Functional Magnetic Resonance Images have supported this idea by showing that autistic people use their visual cortex rather than their prefrontal cortex for a variety of tasks.2 For example, Temple Grandin explained that she did not understand the words “over” and “under” until she saw pictures to go with them.3 Autistic learners may need extra time to create a picture in their minds or to see visual representation to go along with an idea. They also may be Gestalt language processors, which means that they learn language in whole parts or chunks.4 This can be seen in students with echolalia, who repeat words or phrases. They may be communicating or processing large, complex ideas with a single word or phrase.

Non-verbal communication includes gestures (e.g., thumbs up, nods), facial expressions (e.g., smile, frown), and body language (e.g., leaning in, crossed arms). The ability to communicate with others using non-verbal signals is developed by many infants before they learn to speak through their interactions with adult caregivers in their lives. Neurodivergent children take in excess stimulation and information from their environment, which leads to becoming overwhelmed by the volume of information to process. These extraneous sensory experiences are typically filtered out in a neurotypical brain. This difference makes it more difficult for neurodivergent people to pick up on the nuances of non-verbal communication.

Non-verbal cues are continually sent and received in complex social situations in classrooms and schools. These cues are used to understand the various interactions and to figure out how to best respond. Having an interest and ability to read others’ non-verbal messages can be a challenge for both neurotypical and neurodivergent students. Children often require explicit instruction in order to read (receptive) and to share (expressive) needs and wants with others in verbal and non-verbal ways.

Studies have shown that neurodivergent people do not seem to have difficulty communicating with each other.5

Problems arise when neurodivergent individuals are trying to communicate with neurotypical people. This is known as the double-empathy problem.6 The reverse is also true. Historically, we’ve been trying to teach autistic students to communicate in a neurotypical way. However, all students will benefit if we teach multiple ways of communicating.

Strategies to support the development of verbal and non-verbal communication for all learners: 

•   Allow additional processing time; it may be longer than you think. If you re-ask the question, you are restarting the processing time.

•   Reduce teacher talk: keep instructions short, simple, and explicit.

•   Make sure you actually want what you are asking for. For example, if you say, “Put that over there” or “Stop that,” consider where is “there” and what is “that” in these statements.

•   Don’t make something seem like a choice if it isn’t, e.g., “Do you want to work on these math questions?”

•   Use and explicitly teach gestures as a means of communicating when appropriate, e.g., point to where to hang a coat instead of saying, “Put your coat in the cubby.”

•   Remove pressure to use oral language by providing students with ways to respond non-verbally. For example, when anxious, overwhelmed, or in cases of selective mutism, a student can give a thumbs up/down, nod their head, draw a picture, or use facial expressions to communicate their response.

•   Enhance students’ understanding of others’ thinking by talking about what a character in a book might think or feel about a situation based on the non-verbal clues provided. For example, the text says, “She crossed her arms.” What does that mean?

•   Model effective communication, both verbally and non-verbally, by using adult narration to show thinking, actions, and purpose. For example, “I am going to sit at my desk for a moment so I can think of a way to respond that helps us to learn from this situation.”

•   Use visuals, such as:

  • picture cues
  • photographs, e.g., how my desk looks when it’s clean
  • speaking voice and thinking voice 7
  • checklists
  • gestures and signals, e.g., sign language, stop sign
  • cards or signs for occasional use, e.g., break, help, washroom.

•   Explicitly teach social skills, such as active listening, turn taking, etc.

•   Use role-play to record and to revise expressive non-verbal communication to enhance meaning.

•   Play turn-taking games.

•   Work with small groups of at least three students to allow for listening time as well as contributing time.8

•   Connect with school support teachers about a dedicated quiet space for students to go to if communication breakdowns happen.

•   Look deeper: listen to repeated phrases to determine when they are used. Find out from those closest to the child what may be meant by this behaviour.

•   Work with your augmentative and alternative communication speech language pathologist (AAC-SLP) to support non-speaking students in the use of communication tools (e.g., TouchChat, core communication boards, switches, eye gaze, spelling boards).

  • Ensure the student always has access to their communication tool. Limiting access is similar to taping over someone’s mouth.
  • Work with AAC-SLP to implement class-wide access, such as a poster of a core board for the teacher to use, or core boards at desk groupings.
  • Add age-appropriate language to their core words so they can “talk” like their peers.
  • Allow AAC user to decide when they no longer need a support.
  • Encourage and support active listening (see Julie Carter’s Revised Whole Body Listening and Autism Level UP’s Bumper: A Whole Body Learner).9

In conclusion, a busy classroom presents many opportunities for adults and children to learn communication skills and strategies as a community. Like every other area of learning, there are many different ways to observe and to respond to the signals. When the adults in a room remain open to seeing that behaviour is communication, then they can together face the challenge in determining what the behaviour means.


1 Lydia Brown, “The Significance of Semantics: Person-First Language: Why It Matters,” Autistic Choya, August 2011: www.autistichoya.com/2011/08/significance-of-semantics-person-first.html; Emily Ladau, “Why Person-First Language Doesn’t Always Put the Person First,” Think Inclusive, July 2021: www.thinkinclusive.us/amp/why-person-first-language-doesnt-always-put-the-person-first  

2 American Museum of Natural History, “Science Bulletins: Autistic Brains Show Visual Dominance,” June 2012.

3 Temple Grandin, Thinking in Pictures, 2006, “Autism and Visual Thought”:

4 Amy Yacoub, “Is Your Child a Gestalt Language Processor?” TherapyWorks, August 2022: therapyworks.com/blog/child-development/gestalt-language-processor; “Echolalia and Its Role in Gestalt Language Acquisition,” American Speech-Language-Hearing Association: www.asha.org/practice-portal/clinical-topics/autism/echolalia-and-its-role-in-gestalt-language-acquisition

5 Rachel Zamzow, “Double empathy, explained,” Spectrum, July 22, 2021:

6 Damian E.M. Milton, “The double empathy problem,” presented at Neurodiversity: A Paradigm Shift in Higher Education and Employment conference, Dublin, Ireland, October 2020: kar.kent.ac.uk/84693; and “On the Ontological Status of Autism: The ‘double empathy’ problem,” Disability & Society, Vol. 27, No. 6, 2012, pp. 883–887: www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/09687599.2012.710008

7 Adrienne Gear, Reading Power: Teaching Students to Think While They Read, Pembroke Publishers, 2015.

8 Jennifer Katz, Teaching to Diversity: The Three-Block Model of Universal Design for Learning, Portage & Main Press, Vancouver, 2012, “Creating a Community—Block One: Social and Emotional Learning,” pp. 27–58.

9 Julie Carter, “It’s Time to Revise the Traditional ‘Whole Body Listening’ Model,” Julie Carter Law LLC, November 3, 2021: juliecarterlaw.com/whole-body-listening; “Meet Bumper: A Whole Body Learner,” Autism Level UP!: https://cdn.sanity.io/files/p6bm7moz/production/99d189ab413e0ccab0329aaa52658ad68b2f7875.pdf

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