Module 3: Common Communication Characteristics of Individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)


This module and the following two modules will introduce you to characteristics of ASD. Although we identify the characteristics that are most common in ASD, it is important to note that every person with ASD is different and will exhibit different symptoms or symptom severity.

Module 3 Objectives

  • Explain the communication characteristics of ASD.
  • Describe specific examples of communication behaviors you might see in individual with ASD.

Module 3 Topics

  • What are the essential communication characteristics of ASD?
  • What specific communication behaviors might indicate that an individual may have ASD?

Individuals with ASD display unusual behaviors in three main areas:

  • Communication
  • Behavior
  • Social interactions

In this module, we describe common communication characteristics that you may observe in individuals with ASD.

Most individuals with ASD have impairments in communication. They may be unable to speak at all, and may attempt to communicate in unusual ways. However, other individuals with ASD may be able to speak very clearly but may say unusual things and/or they may have unusual speech tones and patterns. Some individuals with ASD have a condition called echolalia, which means that they repeat everything you say. Many individuals with ASD use devices to help them communicate, such as pictures of familiar people, places and objects. Please remember that, however it may manifest, atypical communication is a fundamental feature of ASD.

Because of the communication difficulties that individuals with ASD have, it may appear that they are being non-compliant or ignoring you when, in fact, the noncompliance may be due to not understanding the officer’s questions or instructions. In this module, we discuss some of the common communication characteristics that you may encounter in individuals with autism. We also provide some recommendations for communicating. In Module 6, we will present additional techniques for communicating with someone that you suspect has autism.


What are common communication characteristics in individuals with autism?

The following are common communication characteristics that may indicate an individual has autism. The person:

  • May be nonverbal, using no words at all
  • May make unusual noises, scream, whine, cry, or engage in other vocalizations
  • May utter certain words or phrases over and over; the words or phrases may be nonsensical or may be lines from a movie or song
  • May repeat words or sentences that you say to the individual, so that the individual sounds like he or she is echoing you (echolalia). Sometimes, the repetition is a single word. Sometimes the person might repeat entire sentences. For example:
    • Officer: "What is your name?"
    • Response: "Name"
    • Officer: "Do you know your name?"
    • Response: "Know your name?"
  • May say things that are unrelated to the situation at hand, or may sound nonsensical. Some of these verbalizations might be words or phrases the person has heard before, such as television commercial jingles, or lines from a favorite movie, story, or song. For example:
    • Officer: "Please sit down here on the curb."
    • Response: "To infinity and beyond!" (Buzz Lightyear, from Toy Story)
  • Some individuals with ASD may have trouble using correct pronouns. For example, the person may say, "You want lunch," but mean, "I want lunch." If it seems like the individual is using incorrect pronouns, don't try to correct them or get them to say it the correct way. Simply respond using correct pronouns. For example:
    • Person with ASD: "You want to go home."
    • Officer: "Do you want to go home?"
    • Person with ASD: "Yes, you want to go home?"
  • May try to engage officer in conversation about odd topics that are unrelated to current situation. When possible, attempt to use that unrelated topic to get closer to what it is you need to know from the individual. For example:
    • Officer: "Do you know where you live?"
    • Response: "I only eat hot dogs. Do you like hot dogs? I eat hot dogs."
    • Officer: "I do like hot dogs. Where do you eat hot dogs?"
    • Response: "I eat hot dogs with my brother at home."
    • Officer: "Can you tell me how to get to where you eat hot dogs at home?"
  • May try to argue minor or irrelevant points, or try to lecture the officer, or point out small errors. When possible, do not engage in the debate, but attempt to see this as an opportunity to make a connection. For example:
    • Officer: "I need you to sit on the sidewalk."
    • Response: "That is a curb not a sidewalk."
    • Officer: "You're right, thank you! Please sit on the curb."
  • May speak in a singsong voice, or in a flat, monotone voice. Some individuals with ASD have been described as sounding robotic while others may have far too much inflection.
  • The ability to speak does not reliably indicate the ability to answer questions. Some individuals with ASD may not be able to answer even simple questions, such as:
    • What is your name?
    • Where do you live?
    • What are you doing?
  • Or, some individuals with ASD may not be able to follow simple demands, such as:
    • Sit down
    • Turn around
    • Stop doing that
    • Give me that (object the person is holding)
  • May not respond to any demands, questions, or statements. A person with ASD may appear to not hear you. This should not be interpreted as defiance or disrespect. It is a common characteristic of ASD.
  • May think or talk very intensely about only one thing (called a perseveration), or may persist on the same question or statement, even after you have responded to the question or statement.

Alternative Modes of Communication

Some people with ASD communicate using a hand-held device of some type and may attempt to communicate by pointing to pictures or pressing buttons that generate speech. A few examples of these devices are:

  • An electronic speech-generating device, such as the device pictured below. The individual presses a button and the device plays a sentence using words that someone has recorded, or using an electronic voice. 
  • A laminated card with words, phrases, or pictures. The person will point to pictures or words to communicate ideas or may hand the picture card to you. For example, the individual may point to or hand over a picture that depicts "I want," and then another picture representing specifically what is wanted.
  • Picture or word cards may be contained on a key ring, climbing carabineer, or in a notebook. The person may use these the same way as the laminated card, by pointing or showing the cards that depict what he wants to communicate. Here are examples of picture cards: 
  • The person may have this device clipped to their belt or in their pocket.   
    He or she may show it to you in an attempt to get you to use it, too.

If the individual tries to communicate using one of these approaches, we encourage you to communicate that you understand what the person is trying to tell you. For example, if the person points to "I want" and "mom," you could say, "I understand. You want Mom. I'm going to help you find Mom."

Other individuals use American Sign Language or a modified version of sign language that may only be understood by their caregivers. However, this is somewhat rare; picture cards and speech generating devices are more common.

It is also important to note that some individuals with ASD will speak normally and stay on topic. In such cases, the individual with ASD will still have deficits in their ability to interact with officers. It is not possible to obtain a diagnosis of ASD without some form of social communication deficit. For example, they may avoid eye contact or emphasize less relevant aspects of the interaction. When a person with ASD is asked questions about a car wreck they witnessed, he or she might be less able to predict what the officer is most interested in regarding the accident and give a lot of details unrelated to the cause of the accident.

In Module 6, we will discuss recommendations for how to talk with someone that you suspect may have ASD.

Module 2 | Module 4