As a parent of children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), interactions and communication can be at the top of the lists of concerns while you wonder how to interact with an autistic child. There really isn’t an exact science that would work for all autistic children.
As with any program or exercise, knowing the child and where their interests lie is a good starting point and one that can easily be overlooked if not mindfully put front and center.
Communication skills can be present in both verbal and nonverbal children with autism. Body language skills, social cues, eye contact, and social interaction are just a few ways communication skills can be presented.
In this article we will discuss how to strengthen communication skills, how to get the child with autism to interact and engage with you, how to play back and forth, and what to avoid with the exercises and interactions.
Back to basics: How to form and improve communication skills in your autistic child
In the article, 5 Ways to Help A Child With Autism Learn Social Skills, they list 5 basics with forming social skills with autistic children. This list is by no means exhaustive although I would say that it is a good start, I would recommend looking further and finding out more so that you have a good start.
Acknowledge that your social assumptions are going to differ from your child’s
Children with autism are going to communicate differently and have a different way of viewing the world and how they process social cues and use social communication skills will be no different. The sooner you acknowledge the differences and work with them, the sooner your child will be able to open up and learn their way.
It’s important to learn as your child is learning. Read up and learn more about autism, social skills, and whatever else you are looking to learn more about your child.
The more you learn, the more it should help you understand your child and maybe see a little bit of their world. There are social skills programs that have parents as active members in the process, and they work because the parent is able to extend the lesson over to the real world with their child.
Don’t focus on what you consider the correct or incorrect way of doing things
Instead of using terms like ‘wrong’ or ‘incorrect’, which could have a negative association for an autistic child that wants to be ‘right’, give solid and concrete examples of a behavior and why it is important. An example of this would be, “We say excuse me because then people know that we are walking in front of them and can let us through”.
Practice makes perfect, or helps a little
As a parent, you are in a special position that provides opportunities to practice new skills and help your child grow stronger with every interaction.
Remember it’s about the journey and the progress
As I stated before, it is the opportunity to practice that will help the child progress with their learned skill. It is important to remember that it won’t happen overnight, but it’s the journey that can help strengthen the skills as the child grows and learns more skills.
Remembering these steps help to keep things simple and easy going. A lot of autistic children don’t like feeling extra pressure or stress and may actually regress in skills, that’s why the KISS (Keep It Simple Silly) method is always a good idea when learning and practicing skills.
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Engagement and interaction: How to keep it moving forward
Yolande Loftus wrote the article, Communication Problems and Children with Autism. In the article she breaks down what communication is and how it may look different in both verbal and nonverbal children with autism.
Some of the ideas that she stated in her article included:
Approach communication skills and interactions from the child’s perspective
It was also recommended to have the autistic child choose their own starting point and progress from there.
Practice with peers
This gives the child opportunities to practice with peers while learning more social cues and communication at an age appropriate level.
More opportunities, more practice
It is important to provide as many opportunities as possible to practice new and emerging skills in real world scenarios.
Allow the child to express their interests
Having the child discuss and explain their interests gives them the opportunity to practice back and forth conversation while talking about what they enjoy. Not only are they getting more conversation and interaction, parents will also learn more about their child’s interests.
Keep it appropriate
There is no need to over train communication skills, that just causes robotic responses. Instead it was recommended to model and allow ample time to practice communication of needs while helping the child feel they are in control of the conversation.
These are just a starting point and can turn into long back and forth conversations. It’s important to let the child have control over the conversation and be able to stop when they need or continue on.
Play time is work
When there is a behavioral or social skill that needs to be worked on, it can become a goal. When thinking about a goal, like sharing, there are games that can be played that can help practice and make the goals easier to learn and use.
Older children can be paired with younger children with autism to practice social skills through game play like hot potato or other games. The positive reinforcement of getting to play a game the children enjoy can help the children learn the skills and reach their goals.
I feel games and play aren’t used enough in day to day skill building. If the right combination of the child’s interests and games/interactions could cause an explosion of learning and skill building.
One child that is practicing communicating their needs to a peer through pretend play could start speaking and using new terms correctly that the parents or professionals didn’t know they knew.
Play opens up a whole world to children with autism and can provide opportunities for both nonverbal communication and verbal communication. It will encourage communication while children interact with other children.
It’s a good idea to remember that modeling and practice will be what really helps your child retain the most important things. Over emphasizing and training may sound good, but it can quickly become overwhelming and boring for the child.
While modeling and using real world practice, like talking to the grocery store clerk or saying hello to neighbors, using the autistic child’s interests may help further their skill set. Just remember to keep it light and fun and you may see more social communication skills form and become a regular part of their day.
Keep it simple
There are many many points made during this article that can help improve interaction between parents and their child with autism. Forming and strengthening communication skills, engaging and interacting with your autistic child, play and why it’s important, and things to stay away from while your child learns new social skills.
Overall, the time spent with your child will do so much for their self esteem and overall quality of life. That is because parents are children’s first teachers and help form habits and skills that the children will use throughout life.
Having a strong bond with your child is important for both the parent and child. Children with secure bonds to their parents are more willing to explore because they have a solid foundation to go back to.
Parenting is such an amazing journey and watching as your child with autism learns and soars is such an amazing feeling. Always remember that people do not always see what parents do, but their children know and that is what is important in the end.
Cleveland Clinic Health Essentials. (2020). 5 Ways to Help A Child With Autism Learn Social Skills. https://health.clevelandclinic.org/5-ways-to-help-a-child-with-autism-learn-social-skills/
Loftus, Y. (2021). Communication Problems and Children with Autism. https://www.autismparentingmagazine.com/autism-children-communication-problems/