Communicating With Your Autism Spectrum Patient

Communicating with your autism spectrum patient

The communication deficits associated with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) can make it very challenging for nurses and other medical staff to communicate with their patients.
“At its core, communication is a social process; therefore, the social communication issues experienced by individuals with ASD also impact their communication partners. Family members, friends, teachers, SLPs, and other service providers who interact with someone with ASD are faced with the challenge of learning to respond to subtle bids for communication, interpreting the functions of problem behavior, and modifying the environment to foster active, social engagement” (
With these communication challenges, it is important to determine the best way to communicate with the patient.  Parents are an excellent resource for information regarding their child’s communication skills.
Many individuals with ASD have limited or no vocal language.  That means that their primary communication will be in alternative methods.
Assistive Communication
It is estimated that almost 25% of individuals with autism are non-verbal.  Many of these individuals benefit from assistive or augmentative communication, including sign language, picture-based systems, and voice-output devices.  If you can learn about your patient’s method of communication, you will be better prepared to help them through any exams and procedures they will have while in your care.  One of the most common forms of assistive communication is with the use of pictures.  Pictures can also be effectively used to help an individual with autism understand the schedule of events that will occur while they are at their appointment. For example, if you are going to listen to their heartbeat, take their blood pressure, and then check their throat, you may show them a “list” of pictures like this:
nurse photo 3 Communicating with your autism spectrum patientnurse photo 2 Communicating with your autism spectrum patientnurse photo 1 Communicating with your autism spectrum patient
One of the most common methods for individuals with ASD to communicate is through the use of sign language.  If a patient uses sign language to communicate, it is important to ask parents if they can provide a list or book of common signs their child is likely to use.  These signs may be modified to meet the physical deficits of the child, so a traditional sign system may not be useful for all patients.
Some patients may also use electronic devices to express their needs.  There are a wide variety of electronic devices, such as the devices shown below, as well as numerous applications for electronic devices which can be used to communicate.
Communicating with your autism spectrum patient
American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. (n.d.). Autism – Overview. Retrieved from

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