Communication and Autism

Social communication and interaction

Social communication and interaction

We have made two videos that summarise some of the information on this page.
You can watch these by clicking on them below.
You can click here to read a written transcript of this video.
You can click here to read a written transcript of this video.

What is Social Communication and Interaction?

What is Social Communication and Interaction?
Social Communication and interaction refers to how we communicate and interact in social situations.
There are many ways in which people might do this.

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We might communicate through:
  • Gestures e.g. pointing, reaching, waving, nodding/shaking our heads, describing things using our hands and body
  • Body movements e.g. turning towards somebody to start off an interaction
  • Eye contact
  • Adjusting the volume, pitch and intonation of our voices when we make sounds or say words or phrases.
  • Facial expressions
  • Talking
  • Hand signs e.g. Makaton hand signs / British Sign Language
  • Pictures / symbols / objects
  • Written text

When we interact together:
  • We share attention i.e. we focus on something together. This may be something as simple as engaging in and focussing on a tickling game together.
  • We try to understand what the other person is communicating to us.
  • We take turns communicating with each other.

Autism and Social Communication and Interaction

Autism and Social Communication and Interaction
As young autistic children develop they show certain characteristics in how they communicate and interact.
All autistic children are unique. How they communicate and interact will vary.

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Below are just some examples of the communication and interaction characteristics we may see in young autistic children. It is not an exhaustive list!
  • An autistic child may communicate using means other than through talking. For example, they may pull another person over to what they want.
  • If they are talking they may find this easier to do in certain situations. For example, they may talk more at home, when feeling well regulated and comfortable and when engaging in something they are really enjoying.
  • They may use words/phrases they have copied from others to communicate. It might not always be immediately obvious what they are trying to communicate using these words/phrases.
  • An autistic child may respond more in conversation if clear, direct questions are asked and if the topic of conversation is an area of interest for them.
  • Some autistic children may not look at others so much when communicating. Some may need to look very intently at the other person.
  • Feelings may be expressed more through body movements as opposed to using varied facial expressions. For example, an autistic child may show they do not like something by pushing it away rather than through showing an expression of dislike or annoyance on their face.

Over the years thinking and understanding about autism and social communication and interaction skills has changed.

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Previously, autism was viewed through a medical model. What this means is that autism was viewed as an impairment and autistic people were seen as having social communication and interaction deficits.
Then a social model of autism came about. Within this model autism has been viewed as a difference and that difficulties arise for autistic people because society tends to expect everybody to fit a ‘norm’.
Following on from the social model, autism has been viewed as part of ‘neurodiversity’. This is the idea that people experience and interact with the world in many different ways. There is no one ‘right’ way of thinking, learning and behaving.
So if we look through a neurodivergent lens, autistic people are just different in how they communicate and interact with others in social situations.
Going back to the medical model, a dominant view was that autistic people have an impaired theory of mind. Theory of Mind refers to the ability to understand and imagine the thoughts and feelings of others. It was thought that if autistic people have an impaired ability to do this then this then they will have difficulty understanding and predicting the behaviour of others.
This will make it more difficult to communicate and interact with others. However, we could say the problems go both ways, there is a 'double empathy problem'. This is because autistic and non-autistic people can have difficulties understanding each other’s thoughts, feelings and behaviours.
This is explained more in the diagram below.
If you would like to find out more about the double empathy problem please take a look at the National Autistic Society’s website :
Although there have been changes in thinking and understanding about autism a main goal to work towards is being able to communicate and interact well together.

Where to start with supporting my child?

If your child has sensory needs try and support these first.
  • This is important because if your child feels more comfortable and well-regulated then you will be helping them focus more easily on communicating and interacting with you.
  • Information and ideas on how to support your child’s sensory needs can be found in the sensory needs section of our website where there is a useful video explanation.

The next thing to focus on is strengthening fundamental skills that underlie all communication and interaction.
  • One of these skills is being able to share attention or jointly attend to something with another person. If two people are not paying attention to each other, to the same toy, activity or experience then it is difficult for them to communicate and interact together.
  • Click on the following links to have a look at activities and strategies you can try with your child.
  • In time you may also want to look at ways to support your child’s understanding and ability to communicate to others.
Top Tips

Top Tips

  • Try to just choose one or two new strategies or activities to introduce at a time. You don’t want to overwhelm yourself and your child.
  • It takes time to learn something new. It can take 6 weeks or more to see changes in communication and interaction.
  • Notice small positive changes as these will gradually build towards bigger changes. For example, noticing that your child has gone from crying when they want something to being able to look towards what they want.
  • Keep consistent! Strategies rarely work immediately but with consistent use you can often see change.

What next?

  1. Come to a Next Steps - Communication session. If your child is currently being supported by Islington Social Communication Team you can sign up to either our ‘online’ or ‘face to face’ Next Steps sessions. They provide a space to bring questions and queries to our specialists. You can find session dates, times and details of how to book here.
  2. Following attendance at a Next Steps – Communication session you will be given the opportunity, if you wish, to book a clinic appointment with a speech and language therapist from our team.
  3. You can also access further advice from the National Autistic Society.
Last updated14 Feb 2024
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