From Dr. Chun Wong:
There are many articles online and books out there giving tips on how to encourage an autistic child to interact and socialize with other children and adults, but there’s not much advice out there on how people should actually go about interacting with an autistic child.
Here are some top tips to help you interact effectively with an autistic child or teenager:
- Don’t just see the autism – The disorder does not define who the child is, it’s just one part of their character and being. It’s so easy to get consumed by the autism but it’s not who they are, they are a child with their own unique character and gifts.
- Have patience – You need stacks of patience to bring up any child, but an autistic child can require a lot more patience. You have to be willing to give them time to process your instructions, you have to be willing to repeat things, you need to accept that a simple change of circumstances can lead to a meltdown and you need to give them time to tell you what they need to, without assuming that you know what they need.
- Look for clues – Sometimes an autistic child has limited vocabulary or can’t get get their needs or wishes into words. Look at their body language and gestures for clues. Could they be in pain? Are they likely to be hungry? Are they scared?
- Put yourself in their shoes – If your child has sensory problems, try to imagine what the world is like for them. For example, if a child is hypersensitive then just imagine how it feels to be bombarded by strong smells, loud noises and bright lights, it must be so scary and hard to concentrate on other things.
- Think about the language you use and the way you speak – Don’t show long instructions across the room, which may not be understood; instead go up to the child, get their attention and give clear, simple instructions. If your child has a tendency to take things literally, don’t use jokes, sarcasm, puns or phrases like “it’s raining cats and dogs” because they just won’t understand the “hidden” meaning.
- Show them how to do something, rather than just telling them – Many autistic children are very visual, rather than verbal, and so can learn how to do a task much faster if you show them what to do. Be patient too.
- Focus on your child’s abilities, rather than their disabilities – Think about what your child can do, rather than what they cannot do. Use encouragement and praise, and build on their strengths.
- Learn the warning signs of tantrums – If you keep a log of behavior problems or tantrums, you may be able to pinpoint the potential triggers of the problem behavior and so prevent future meltdowns.
- Believe in your child – Just because a child has autism, it does not mean that they cannot have a quality of life or reach their full potential. Famous people who are thought to have suffered from autism, or to be autistic, include Mozart, Beethoven, Van Gogh, Hans Christian Andersen, Andy Warhol, Bob Dylan, Lewis Carroll, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Dan Aykroyd and Ladyhawke (Philippa Brown). As I have said, autism does not define a person.
- Love your child for who they are – It is our job as parents to love our child unconditionally. Yes, having an autistic child can be really hard and sometimes you feel like banging your head against a brick wall, and you may really wish that they did not have autism and that they were different, but your child deserves your unconditional love and needs to be accepted for who they are. I’m not saying that you should not strive to seek a treatment to alleviate autism symptoms, but you do need to accept your child as they are now.
- Be willing to teach others about your child – Not everyone will stop and stare, or shoot you looks of disapproval, some people want to understand your child and learn how to interact with them. Help these people by telling them your child’s needs, your child’s interests, what they don’t like, what can spark off a tantrum and how they should approach your child. Many people are just ignorant of autism, they want to do the right thing but just don’t know what to do.
- If you are a relative or the friend of a parent with an autistic child, you should ask the child’s parents how you can best interact with the child (see number 11). You need to know how best to approach the child – for example, it may be best not to approach the child directly but to play beside them and to take cues from them. Find out what the child’s main interest is – many autistic children have a particular interest, like cars or trains, that you could use to engage them. You may also need to give warning of change – many autistic children find change difficult, so warn them in advance that you need to leave or that it will soon be lunch time and they need to pack up their toys etc. The main thing is to not be afraid of making mistakes and upsetting the child or causing a tantrum – it’s better to try, than to just ignore the child.
There’s a great book, “10 Things A Child With Autism Wishes You Knew” by Ellen Notbohm (available at Amazon), which I recommend. It explores the top ten characteristics of children with autism, to help parents, carers and teachers understand autism and to help them interact with the child. It’s a great book and can be given to relatives or friends who do not understand your child’s needs.