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Communicating with your autistic child

Autism spectrum disorder, a condition related to brain development that impacts the way one might perceive others or socialize with them, can cause a person to have challenges with communication. Those on the spectrum may exhibit repetitive behavior patterns, and may be limited in how they can share their feelings. Often, autism begins and is diagnosed in early childhood – it’s during these formative years that parents catch symptoms, like an inability or a resistance to eye contact, indifference to members of authority, lack of response to emotions, or withdrawn or aggressive behavior. All this said, there’s a reason the term ‘spectrum’ is in the name – every child on the spectrum is going to exhibit a variety of behaviors and will not necessarily have the same level of severity as another child with the disorder. Read more about the autism diagnosis. 


One of the most challenging aspects of parenting a child on the spectrum is communication; many parents report having children who have problems with social interaction and communication skills. Autism communication is most certainly a trying practice, especially for those and the parents of those who are non-verbal autistic. Even for talking autism, communications efforts may break down.


Challenges in communication with a child on the spectrum may be due to the following scenarios:


  • Your child can’t seem to start a conversation, or maintain it; he or she will begin a conversation to make a simple request or to label an event or an item.


  • Your child repeats the same words or can even tell you what you just said verbatim, but doesn’t seem to understand what the words mean or how to follow direction.


  • Your child cannot seem to make eye contact with you (or anyone) and may even lack all facial expression.


  • Your child does not respond to his or her name, and may even seem to ignore you.


  • Your child either does not speak or has delayed speech. In some cases, even if your child could speak before, he or she seems to sometimes forget certain words or how to speak altogether.


  • Your child speaks using atypical rhythms (using a melody to speak, for example).


  • Your child does not seem to recognize social cues, interrupting or inappropriately entering others’ social interactions.


  • Your child may be disruptive, aggressive or passive.


  • Your child seems unable to read between the lines, people’s facial expressions, tones of voice or body postures.


  • Your child doesn’t like being held or cuddled, and prefers solitary play instead of being with others.


Other patterns of behavior may even include the following:


  • Your child seems fascinated by certain aspects of a toy instead of the toy itself (for example, the ridges of a ball instead of the actual ball and how it’s used).


  • Your child rocks, flaps his or her hands, spins or performs other repetitive movements


  • Your child has difficulty with coordination or may even exhibit abnormal movement patterns (some parents report their children walking on their toes, for example)


  • Your child doesn’t like many foods, and may have very specific preferences.


  • Your child participates in harmful behavior, like headbanging.


  • Your child participates in behavior other people may find repulsive, like fecal smearing.


  • Your child refuses to engage in make-believe or fantasy play.


  • Your child may show a sensitivity to certain colors, to light, sound or touch – but may seem unable to feel pain or high temperatures.


  • Your child focuses on a particular object or activity with great and often unexplained intensity.


All of these patterns of behavior and symptoms may lead to a breakdown in communication between parent and autistic child. Following are some typical scenarios that might arise, and some tips that might help you communicate with your child on the spectrum:


My child isn’t paying attention! If your child doesn’t seem to be connecting with you or what you have to say, try saying their name at the beginning of every conversation. Also, ensure they’re already either looking at you or at the very least paying attention to your presence; if you can, engage in the activity they’re already participating in. Other communication problems you might be having with your child.


When I ask my child open-ended questions, I get no response. It’s hard enough sometimes to get any child to talk, let alone one on the spectrum. Keep even your open-ended questions short, and ask only the questions that are necessary in the moment. For example, “How was your day?” will be easier for a child to answer than, “How are you feeling today?”


My child seems to take everything literally. Children on the spectrum have difficulty with social cues, which means that using sarcasm, figurative language, exaggeration, rhetorical questions or irony will be lost on them. As much as possible, say only exactly what you mean, and mean exactly what you’re trying to say.


My child does not like taking no for an answer. This is a tough one – most kids don’t ever like it when we say no! It’s even more difficult for a child on the spectrum. Try the following suggestions: instead of the word no, try using a different word or even a symbol; explain why you’ve said no, in as simple terms as possible; try not to react loudly to an inappropriate behavior if your ‘no’ is due to that; set boundaries ahead of time so your child knows not to request something if you’ve already determined it’s a dangerous or unacceptable activity.


My child hits me or kicks me if I say no, or they don’t want to do something I’ve asked for. It’s not typical for an autistic child to hit simply because he or she is mean or violent just to be violent; usually, behaviors like hitting are caused by something else. It could be that your child is in pain, hungry, tired, thirsty, uncomfortable or disappointed, and hitting is the only way he or she can share that emotion or feeling. If you can pinpoint exactly what has just happened that’s caused the hitting, work on that. If you can understand the behavior’s purpose and its triggers, it will be easier to avoid getting to the point of violence.


My child probably needs help but doesn’t ask for it. I’m not sure my child knows how to ask for help. Experts recommend the use of visual supports, which are particularly helpful for non-verbal kids on the spectrum. You can keep flashcards with basic symbols that show different emotions. You can create an emotion thermometer, so your child can show how upset or how angry or how tired (you pick – anything goes here) he or she is on a thermometer scale. You can use labels with images instead of words, and you can even create choice boards (things to eat, things to play, what kind of rewards are available, etc.)


My child can’t seem to process my words and directions. Unfortunately, your autistic child probably finds it exceedingly difficult to figure out what’s important and what’s not. If you’re giving complex instructions, it will lead to overload, and your child will either misinterpret your request, or avoid doing it altogether. Here are some tips: 1) say less; 2) speak slowly; 3) pause between words or sentences to give your child time to absorb what he or she has just heard; 4) use visual supports (mentioned above); 5) be cautious and aware of where you’re giving direction (if you’re in a crowded, noisy space, chances are your child really won’t be able to process what you have to say).


My child is non-verbal. What can I do? Some kids on the spectrum don’t use speech, and in these situations you’ll be called upon to understand the communications methods they’re capable of employing. These might include reaching out, using pictures, making gestures, crying, screaming, taking you to the object they want, or even participating in challenging behavior. In some cases, some kids on the spectrum repeat other people’s words, which is called echolalia. For non-verbal autistic kids, try to be face-to-face as much as possible, so you can observe what they’re interested in, what they have to say, and will learn from your own facial expressions and responses how best to communicate with you. Learn more about teaching your child how to communicate.


Although it may seem challenging, and at times downright difficult, to communicate with your autistic child, it doesn’t have to be impossible. Remember that for even non-autistic kids, communication and social skills still need to be taught, practiced and perfected. If you need further guidance on how to communicate with your autistic child, we’d love to help. Visit us at www.allianceabatherapy.com today to speak with a license and trusted ABA therapist. 


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