5 Simple Helps for Senior Citizens and Autism

This blog is about how to help senior citizens and students with autism engage better with your communication.  Surprisingly, they both benefit from these same five simple helps.

Do senior citizens have the same communication challenges as those with special learning needs like autism?

It doesn’t surprise me that senior citizens experience communication breakdowns. Communication challenges are common for students with autism or other special learning needs, too.

What puzzles me, however, is that communication partners frequently don’t grasp the need to make adjustments to their typical communication style.

Sometimes family members, or others like store clerks or medical personnel, don’t seem to “get it.”

These communication partners don’t typically
make simple adjustments that could help
that elderly person or that person with autism
interact and manage more easily

It’s so easy to become goal-directed (meaning accomplishing my task) instead of people directed (making sure the other person is getting what they need to understand my communication).

Here’s something you can try

I tested my theory. In many smaller stores, the clerks are trained to greet the customers that enter the store. It’s common for them to say “Hello,” or “Can I help you with something?” or a similar greeting. It’s common for the customer to respond in some way.

But here’s the problem. If that store person is far away or standing behind a counter, they just call across the room. They are not really “communicating.” They’re following a routine that does not require a response.

So, to test my theory, here’s what I did.  Actually, here’s what I didn’t do. I didn’t respond. When the clerk called out to me, I wanted to see what he or she would do.

The clerk did nothing. There was no follow-up. I tried this experiment multiple times and about 90% of the time there was no further action from the clerk.

How common is it that communication partners don’t really measure how the other person is responding when they talk.

Making communication work

Here are 5 things we all need to remember so we can be effective in our interactions with senior citizens, individuals with autism, or anyone else with communication challenges, whether their difficulties are visible or not. 

1.   Get their attention before talking 

Seniors are not as alert as they used to be when they were younger. In fact, little naps can be pretty common. When my elderly Mom was in the hospital, I saw nurses come in and talk to her when she wasn’t awake.

By the time Mom woke up and oriented to the conversation, the nurse was half done with what she was saying.  Mom missed most of the message.

Students with special learning needs have attention issues for different reasons, but establishing attention is a common challenge for all of them.

2.   Talk loud enough to be heard

Yelling doesn’t work. But older people frequently don’t hear as well as they used to. It’s common for seniors to experience difficulty hearing, especially in noisy places like restaurants or when there is background noise like music or the TV.

There are multiple causes, and an evaluation is recommended. By age 75, more than 1/3 of women and almost ½ of men have some degree of hearing loss.

But from a functional point of view, the hearing loss may get worse gradually. That means the senior citizen may not really realize the amount of impairment they are experiencing.

In addition, some seniors resist things like doctor appointments and hearing aids, so getting an evaluation won’t be high on their “to do” list.

High-frequency hearing loss is common. That means women’s and children’s voices will be harder to hear. Seniors benefit when you lower the pitch of your voice and speak up a bit.

Our students on the autism spectrum have difficulty, too. It’s usually not a hearing loss, but it has more to do with the ability to listen in noisy or distracting environments.

3.   Talk slower

Besides not hearing as well, seniors don’t hear as “fast” as they did before. It’s common for them to experience a reduction in the speed of mental processing.

Remembering information and associating it with names and prior knowledge takes more time than it used to. Their ability to retrieve information is not as effective as when that person was younger.

When people talk too fast, seniors miss much of the message.

Our students with special learning needs can have these same difficulties.

There is interesting research that shows adults often talk faster than students can listen. This includes typical learners, too, not just those with special learning needs. The difference is that those typical learners can adapt and adjust more easily than those with learning challenges.

4.   Be aware of what you say

It’s easy for seniors to get confused. Older people may not completely understand what you are talking about.

When they are working hard to understand something, (because you are talking too fast and not loud enough) and you keep talking, they miss everything else you are saying.

Modern vocabulary, medical terms, or slang may not be familiar or comfortable for seniors. Simplify and use the vocabulary the senior is familiar with.

When my Mom was in the hospital, the intern came in to describe a medical procedure. He began his explanation with, “You are going to have a transcatheter mitral valve repair. The catheter will traverse your. . .”

I don’t think she heard anything else he said.

Students with special learning needs may be familiar with more vocabulary than you think, or they may not. Vocabulary can be a significant issue with students from bi-lingual environments, too. Just be aware.

5.   Use visual supports

Seniors often don’t see as well as they used to. Still, visual supports can be helpful. Giving information in a visual form can help seniors process it more easily than when they just hear it.

Use calendars, written notes, clocks, pictures, pill holders, and other visual tools to help them orient and remember. Just make sure the visual supports are big enough and clear enough for the senior to benefit from.

It’s well established that those with special learning needs benefit from using visual supports. Those visual tools can be helpful lifelong.

Consider these modifications

  • Instead of using a pencil or ink pen, help compensate for vision problems by using a marker or Sharpie and write bigger and darker.  The chisel markers work really well, too.

  • Color-coding can be helpful, but choose paper that provides good contrast so the writing is legible. Dad would get frustrated when he got cards from people who wrote in the tiniest handwriting with light-colored ink on colored paper. He wouldn’t even try to read it.
Executive functioning is more challenging for both seniors & those with special learning needs

Planning, organizing, and making decisions can become difficult for older individuals. These activities become much more challenging when seniors experience communication breakdowns along the way and don’t get complete information.

Dad had a lot of difficulty with this. He thought he knew what he wanted or needed to do, but he couldn’t ask the right questions or remember the important information to make necessary decisions.

Students can have difficulty with executive functioning skills, too. The difference is that the seniors used to have them but can’t exercise them as effectively or as consistently as they used to. In contrast, the students may have never learned them.

Communication partners are important

When I have taken my folks shopping or to appointments or meetings, I end up being the translator.

I’ll admit that there have been times when I’ve told someone, “If you want my Mom to understand what you are saying, you are going to have talk louder and slower.” Sometimes that little bit of “coaching” works. Other times it doesn’t.

There are some very intuitive people

There are some people who are the “angels.” They are “naturals.” Some people just make these types of communication adjustments without even thinking about it. They just know how to communicate clearly for seniors and those with communication challenges.

These end up being the people that the senior citizens and students enjoy visiting with or being with the most.

It’s not really that hard

Think about it. Get their attention. Talk loud enough and slow enough to be understood. Use language they will understand. Make sure to remember visual supports.

What is more difficult for many people is to maintain those adjustments in their OWN communication interactions so they can help those with the communication challenges.

What does this have to do with autism?

There can be different reasons that seniors and children with autism demonstrate the same types of challenges.  But for me, as the communication partner, adjusting how I communicate with them will help them participate more successfully.

Regardless of the reasons they have problems, the solutions are basically the same.

Be sure to use these five simple helps for senior citizens and students with autism or related communication challenges so you can have more effective interactions with them.

P.S. There’s one other behavior that really makes a difference.  When Dad was sitting in a wheelchair, some people would stand next to him to talk to him. That means Dad could view their belly buttons or their knees, depending on the situation. 

The really good communication partners adjusted things so that they were talking face-to-face with Dad. That really improved their communication interactions.

Students can have a similar experience. If they are much shorter than their communication partner or if the student is sitting and the partner is standing, there is an awkwardness that is fairly easy to fix.

P.P.S.  Here’s one of the best gifts I ever gave my senior citizen parents. I’ll bet it works well for students, too. This digital memory clock helps so much with orientation and memory.

P.P.P.S. When I’m presenting my visual strategies programs for teachers of students with autism, I regularly have people talk to me after the program about how they use the same visual strategies with a senior citizen friend or family member. Visual strategies work!



Related Posts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked

{"email":"Email address invalid","url":"Website address invalid","required":"Required field missing"}