The Contract for Communication: A Practical Approach for Improving Mutual Communication

by Catherine Faherty

There are many treatment options and teaching strategies in the field of autism spectrum disorders which assume that something must be changed about the person with ASD: their behavior, their responses, their thoughts, or their communication skills. The intent of this article is to introduce a broader, more inclusive, and possibly courageous, approach. We begin by first acknowledging that with the autism spectrum comes a different style of communication – different from the widespread style of communication that most (non-autistic) people are familiar with and unconsciously expect. Then consider the idea that miscommunication and misunderstanding often result from a mismatched style of communicating – and finally, that all of us are responsible when desiring improved communication.

It is because my attention is on mutual communication that the ideas covered in this article are proposed equally to all communication partners – those who are neurotypical, and those on the spectrum. It is no surprise that plenty of communication problems can occur between people with ASD and their neurotypical communication partners; after all, there is much variation among people, and there are endless individual issues that can interfere with harmonious interaction. These differences between communication styles sometimes result in miscommunication – the prevention of which is the focus of my upcoming presentations for the Autism Awareness Centre in Winnipeg and Saskatoon; and my recently published book, Communication: What Does It Mean To Me? (Future Horizons, 2010).

A few salient terms provide a solid backbone for this discussion. Let’s define communication partner, communication style, agreement, Contract for Communication, and win-win.

A communication partner is a person who is communicating in the moment, or is in a relationship with another person, thus requiring on-going communication over a period of time. A communication partner can be a student, teacher, son, daughter, parent, grandparent, cousin, aunt, uncle, spouse, friend, acquaintance, therapist, client, co-worker, supervisor, employee, employer, neighbor, or someone else. They can be neurotypical or on the autism spectrum.

Communication style refers to the ways in which people communicate. It includes speech patterns and dialect, but more importantly – for the purposes of this discussion – it refers to the way people understand others, and the way they express themselves. Specific and unique communicative behaviors and characteristics are at least partly determined by the way an individual thinks, reasons, perceives, intuits, and interprets the world, meaning they are that way because of his or her cognition. There are resulting distinct beliefs and assumptions in general about communication among many verbal people on the autism spectrum because of their cognitive style; just as there are common beliefs and assumptions about communication among their neurotypical communication partners.

Let’s say it again: miscommunication and misunderstanding often result from a mismatched style of communicating. In order to reach through these differences and meet the other in a place of clarity, ease, and understanding, each communication partner must adapt or modify at least some parts of his or her automatic (and intuitive) way of communicating. I propose to those who sincerely desire to better understand and relate to their communication partner, that they each adopt a specific set of new agreements for communicating.

An agreement is an arrangement in which people consent to certain conditions, usually relating to their behavior, ideas, and/or attitudes. If people “make an agreement” it implies that they will try their best to do what they have agreed to do.

The Contract for Communication distills a few simple rules to improve communication and presents them as a unique user-friendly resource. It consists of guidelines, described as agreements to be made between communication partners. The Contract for Communication includes five agreements for each communication partner. The first set of agreements is meant for the NT communication partner and the second set of agreements is meant for the communication partner with ASD. Although the specifics of all ten agreements are beyond the scope of this article, the reader is reminded that each of these two groups of communicators has its own general characteristics, assumptions, and quirks; which is why I have proposed a unique set of agreements for each group.

Win-win is the concept that a particular belief or practice will create a positive result for everyone involved even if it appears that they are on opposite or conflicting sides, with different needs. Win-win is an alternative to the old assumption that for every winner there has to be a loser. The beauty of the Contract for Communication is that both sets of agreements can be described as win-win. All of the agreements in the Contract for Communication, whether they are suggested for a person with ASD or an NT communication partner, will benefit both. Both communication partners gain something from every agreement.

Of course, not all misunderstanding will be eliminated by the agreements proposed in the Contract for Communication. However by following a few straightforward guidelines, the chances of miscommunication and misunderstanding* – on both sides – may greatly decrease. It is a place to start. My hope is that mutual understanding and authentic communication will flourish.

* In order to clarify for all communication partners, detailed definitions of the terms misunderstanding and miscommunication, as well as other relevant concepts, are provided in my presentations and book.

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