Can I teach my autistic child to be more spontaneous?

Kids on the autism spectrum have communication deficits, which means that some of them can’t or won’t speak, while those who can and do may not spontaneously talk to others, even friends and family. It also means they’re not likely to take the initiative to start conversations, to ask questions, or to remark on what’s happening around them.

Fely’s son, Andrew, is 8, and was diagnosed with autism only a year ago. She says that Andrew is more communicative than his peers in their autism support network, but she still wishes he communicated more.

“I don’t want to ask too much of my son, but as I’m trying to get to learn what he wants, I want him to develop better skills in communication, including spontaneous conversation,” she explains.

“It’s not about spontaneity that’s like, ‘Oh, Mom, can we go for a drive to a theme park today?’ Spontaneous activity for Andrew is just him making a comment about dinner, like ‘I really like this pasta. Can you make this more often?’  

“It seems like such a simple request, but for kids who have autism, it can be a very complex and challenging ask.”

If, like Fely, you want your child to increase their level of spontaneous communication, check out the tips below:

Give your child reason to request something. If your child enjoys something like drawing or coloring, keep the paper or coloring book handy, but keep the pencils tucked away where your child can’t easily find them. If your child likes to play on the computer, keep the keyboard or mouse somewhere separate, until they learn to ask.

By doing this, your child will learn to ask for things that aren’t readily available or in sight. They’ll start to connect that they can ask for things that are missing, and they can ask for it and get it when they request it.

You may want to devise a list of items your child currently already asks for, but pay attention to what your child loves to play with or likes to do with items they never need to request (because they’re readily available or because you instinctively or automatically provide them).  

Keep it clear. Purchase clear containers that would need an adult’s assistance to be opened. Fill it with items that your child may ask for, like toys or art supplies.

What this tip does is show your child that what they want may be within reach, but they need to learn to ask for help to get access to them. You can work with your child on the skills they need to practice to ask: pointing to the items, asking for the items by name, or however else they need to communicate with you to let you know what it is they need.

Give a little bit. Let’s get a little more challenging. When your child asks for something, give them just one item, or a few, at a time. Let’s go back to the drawing example – if your child is asking for a pencil, perhaps give them a pencil that’s broken off or needs sharpening. They’ll then need to learn to ask for the sharpener so they can draw successfully.

When you do this, your child sees you’re interested in meeting their needs by answering their request, but they’ll need to ask again to get the rest of what they want. It increases their motivation, and gets them to rehearse asking without realizing it.

Keep it just out of reach. If you don’t have clear containers or boxes that lock, you may want to try keeping things in places where your child can’t reach (just be careful and cautious, ensuring that they don’t try to climb dangerous heights to try to get to their items). This works very similarly to the clear container strategy; your child sees what they want is available, but they’ll need to ask to receive.

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