The ability to communicate with autistic people: a help from the Natural Semantic Metalanguage

Natural Semantic Metalanguage (NSM)

A universal language: the Natural Semantic Metalanguage

Natural Semantic Metalanguage (NSM) is based on a shared core of simple words, called semantic primes that could be translated in many different languages evoking exaclty the same concept. It was the main result of a beyond 30 years of intensive studies on linguistics by Anna Wierzbicka, Professor of Canbera and Brisbane University, Australia. Sixty-five semantic primes emerged from this studies, a group of words that could be used as linguistic and cultural analysis tool to explain the meaning of more complex sentences or cultural-specific concepts as values and cultural attitudes. Actually, the NSM represents a universal language that allows us to formulate analysis: firstly, reducing the risk of any sort of misunderstanding; secondly, without the problem of traducing from the “anglo-centric” sense of meaning.[1]


I, me, you, someone, something-thing, people, bodySubstantives
Kind, partRelational substantives
This, the same, other, elseDeterminers
One, two, much, many, little, few, some, allQuantifiers
Good, badEvaluators
Big, smallDescriptors
Think, know, want, don’t want, feel, see, hearMental predicates
Say, words, trueSpeech
Do, happen, move, touchActions, events, movement, contact
Be (somewhere/someone/something), there is, is mineLocation, existance, specification, possession
Live, dieLife and death
When, time, now, before, after, a long/short time, for some time, momentTime
Where, place, here, above, below, far, near, side, insideSpace
Not, maybe, can, because, ifLogical concepts
Very, moreAugmentor, intensifier


Here an example of how introduce NSM in clinical practise in order to make the language more relatable to the illness of the patient.

Clinical definition of depression DSM-5:

“Everyday practise of sense of impotence or excessive and inappropriate sense of duty (that could be delusional)”


Here, the language used is focused on a social perspective, evoking the sickness sphere[2]; concepts as social failure, duty, moral judgement are indeed hidden in this definition.

Conversely, NSM addresses a definition of depression closer to the patient’s perspective, based on words that the depressive person could pronunce in their real life:


“Doing something, not doing anything, not doing anything good, wanting to live, not wanting to live, wanting to die”


A guidance to the art of conversation for children and young adults with Autism

Paul Jordan, Master of Translation from the Australian National University, is on the Autism spectrum. He lives in Canberra and is author of the book entilted “How to start, carry on and end conversations”, written for adolescents and young adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). The main aim of this book is to teach this people how making sense of and dealing with the most common social situations, as school, university, relations with friends and strangers. Since ASD people often tend to consider every speech literaly, and have difficulty in distinguishing truth from irony or fiction,  so the need for a guidance, a manual for youngs and families to overcome their limits. The winning strategy could be the choise of a such universal concepts as NSM, understood by all and relatable to people at different ages or cultures.


Making friends

How can this book be useful to all that live with, take care and be a friend of a person with ASD (or, as the author says, with “ASpies”)? Families and patients can use it as a guidance, a manual structured in scripts along with the thinking and saying parts of the speech, as a help for dealing with the most common social situations as meeting new friends and dialoging with them.

<<You may desperately want to make friends, yet you don’t exactly know what to do. You may be avoiding talking to or interacting with other children, because they will probably not tell you when you’re saying or doing something inappropriate – something that they think you shouldn’t say or do.>>

Here, we reports some examples of Scripts, but in the book you can find many more of these.


Context: It can be like this

I know someone well

                                  I haven’t been with this someone for some time

                                  I see this someone now

Suggestions: When it is like this, it will be good if I say something like this to this someone:

I see you now, I feel something good because of this, I haven’t seen you for some time

                               I want to know some things about you

                               I want to know what you did during this time

                               I want to know what happen to you during this time


<<It’s easy, don’t you think, to talk to an adult, because they’re more understanding. It’s much more difficult, however, to talk to other kids of your own age when you feel you have nothing in common with them.>>

This chapter is a mirror clearly reflecting the difficulties of autism people in dealing with social situations, especially with other children.



In order to developing their relationships with friends, the book suggests to young Aspies to apply their skills and to deal with short conversations. The author indeed explain rules that normal people consider obvious while Aspies have to learn and  apply in their real life.

<<In the next chapter, we’ll look at how to relate to other children, using this mini-language>> in order to explain what happens and what we have to do.


Context: It can be like this:

I see someone somewhere

                                  I know this someone well

                                  I can say some things to this someone at that time

                                  When it is like this, it will be good if I say some things to this someone

Suggestions: It will be good if I say something like this:

I want to know how you are

Examples, You can think something like: “There’s Laura who works with me at the supermarket. She was in a different part of the country for six months and I have not seen her. I wonder how she is”

You can say something like: “Laura, how are you? I haven’t seen you all year! What are you up to? How was Perth? We should catch up. What are you doing on Friday? We could meet somewhere.”




Context: It can be like this:

I am talking to this someone for some time

                                  When it is like this, I have to do some things with my body during that time:

                                  I have to look at this someone’s face at many times 

                                  I have to look at their eyes at many times

                                  It is good if I am on one side of this someone

                                  It is good if I am not very far from this someone; It is good if I am not very close to this


                                 It is good if my arm cannot touch this someone


Suggestions: At the same times, I have to think like this:

When this someone is saying some things to me, I can’t say anything to this someone at

the same time

                 I can say something a very short timeafter this

                                I twill be good if I say something about the same thing


<<Finaly, a conversation has to come to an end- it can’t drag on and on, but you may find it difficult to know how to get out of a conversation>>


Special Interests

Adults and children with autism often have special interests, something they particularly love and in which they are highly experts. Some examples of special interests of Paul Jordan that the author reported in this book are animals, tran sport means, languages of the world; overall, many fileds could be the object of interest of ASD people, as music or numbers. Their expertise on this fields could reach extraordinar level.

The book suggests to youngs with autism to use their interests as a strategy of coping (coping skills).

<<Because my interests is mini-language, it seems appropriate for me to use it here to outline some ways in which people with autism can use special interests as coping skills >>

<<…we tend to go on and on about our special interests to the exclusion of anyone else’s interests>>


Context: I know that it is like this:

   I think about many things not like many other people think about these things

                   Because of this, I feel something bad when things happen not like they happened before

                   At times like this I think like this: “These things are not now as they were before; I don’t know why

   it is like this”


Suggestions: It will be good if I think like this:

                               I want to know why these things are not now as they were before. I can know it if I do

something[for example, read about these things, talk to someone about these things]

I want to do it because of it



Thinking differently can be a problem

People with ASD have a very different way to think then other people. However, a complete isolation to escape from any sort of relation is actually impossibile (also in terms of relations with teachers and classmates at school). Consequently, learning what is the differences between their own way of reasoning and one of the other people will become an important lesson for these youngs. It is mainly to overcome possible difficulties in the social situations they live.

<<Sometimes you can feel that you are much more intelligent than the rest of your classmates. You have what is called advanced intellectual ability. While the other pupils in the class are learning other things, you probably find yourself distracted by things like bright lights, loud noises and language issues (especially taking expressions literaly).>>



Context: I know that it is like this:

I am someone not like other people

                                 My brain does things not like other people’s brains

                                 Because of this, I think about many things not like other people

                                 Sometimes good things can happen because of this

                                 Sometimes bad things can happen because of this

                                 It is good if I know this well


Suggestions: It will be good if I think like this

                               I can think about many things very well. Not all people can think like this


<<Staying in the present:  This is the way, using technique called mindfulness, to stop yourself before bad memory comes back and upsets you, causing you to get angry for no appereant reason. When something bad happens to you like this, just to be still, close your eyes and concentrate on gentle breathing.>>

Final Considerations

It’s surprising reading that analysis of mental processes, so natural for “us” since we were infants, are not as spontaneous for people with ASD, as Paul Jordan.

Thought as a conversation manual, the book is written in first person and directed to people with autism. However, the reading reveals that it is just a superficial way to interprete the book.

Indeed, it could be considerable a manual for all people, not only for Aspies, a “Galateo of the Art of Communication”, that reports rules from acceptance, regards, listening, ownself respect and respect for others.

The main actor of this book is the rationalization process, to learn, understand fenomenon, give explanations that hand out peace against anxiety born from unknown and unpredictable things.

Furthermore, through the reading of the scripts we can experience firsthand and for the first time the way to think so different, so rational and logic, from causes to consequences, and apply it also in social and emotional fields.

Facing the unpredictability of thoughts, Paul Jordan concluded the book making us remember the importance of plan breathing, of mindfulness, diving us into the oriental philosophies, an unexpected field for the world of autism.




Maria Giulia Marini,

Healthcare Director of ISTUD Foundation


Silvia Napolitano,

Healthcare Researchers of ISTUD Foundation




We are grateful to Paul Jordan, Master of Translation from the Australian National University and author of the book “How to start, carry on and end conversations” that inspired this paper.

paul jordan



[1] Griffith

[2] Kleinman, Arthur. The illness narratives: Suffering, healing, and the human condition. Basic books, 1988.

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