Prosody and Autism

Prosody is the rhythm and intonation of speech.  It reflects various features of the speaker that include the emotional state of the speaker, irony, sarcasm and much more.  For people with Autism also known as Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) prosody is difficult to hear, reproduce or to understand.

More often than not people with Autism and even people with Aspergers will not understand the meaning of a word or sentence based purely on the “way it has been said”.  For them a particular word has a particular meaning and when it is used in a sarcastic way they would not understand “sarcasm” because they don’t understand the tone in which it is being said.  Or … they would not necessarily understand when the tone of the speaker has changed into “anger” or “disappointment”.

Language is “literal” for those with ASD – when they speak they typically say a word, they mean it and they understand it in only one way.

Understanding prosody and “literal speech” is vital in any teaching environment where children with Autism are being taught because you need to know how to speak “literal”  and you need to know that a person with Autism will hear what you say in a “literal” manner.

So to avoid confusion in the classroom or in your home here are a few tips:

Use pictures, descriptive short sentences with “literal” words e.g. if you tell a child to go sit on the toilet and you have not told the child to pull down his pants before he/she sits on the toilet don’t be surprised to find a student sitting on the toilet with all his clothes on;

– Use visual schedules and give clear “from start to finished” instructions e.g. if you tell a child to put on the tap and wash his/her hands and you have not told them to turn off the tap when they are done, they will not automatically turn the tap off.  Same goes for leaving fridge doors open or not closing the bathroom door, flushing after they have finished on the toilet or even pulling up their pants before they leave the bathroom;

– Avoid long sentences e.g rather say:  “stop” than “can you please stop doing that now”.  For some this might sound rude but for people with an autism spectrum disorder the processing of language takes longer and the shorter you keep your sentences the more chance you have of getting your message across.

– Realise that scolding, an angry face or sarcasm means nothing – this is probably the most vital tip I can share with you.  Your facial expression, the tone of your voice and/or the scolding will not have the desired impact on your child or learner because of prosody and autism.







Ilse Kilian-Ross

Ilse Kilian-Ross is the owner of Amazing K, a registered ECD and Partial Care Facility in Johannesburg. Amazing K is a private adhd school, autism school and therapy centre for children from age 2 - 6 years where learners receive the best of both the schooling and therapy world. The autism school offers Individualized Education Programs, Speech- and Augmentive Alternative Communication (AAC) therapy as well as a full and adapted Academic Curriculum.