One child in 54 has an autism diagnosis, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says. The prevalence of diagnosed children goes up each year, although researchers aren't quite sure why the prevalence is increasing.
Chances are, you've already met a child with autism. It's important to understand what not to do with an autistic child and what can help to promote positive interactions. Autistic children may seem slightly unusual, but they deserve your kindness and respect. The choices you make could inadvertently cause harm, even though you want to engage positively with them.
Don't make that mistake. Follow these dos and don'ts when dealing with autistic children.
What to Do for an Autistic Child
Let's focus on the positive before we dig into what to avoid doing for an autistic child. Plenty of options are available as you look for ways to support the children in your life.
Help During a Meltdown
We tend to expect a lot from children with autism. They thrive in environments that are calm, familiar, and supportive. But we often ask them to succeed in grocery stores, airports, and classrooms.
When children with autism are overwhelmed, they can experience meltdowns. Meltdowns can involve:
- Withdrawal. The child retreats to an inner world and stops talking altogether. The child may perform repetitive actions like rocking or hand flapping to self-soothe.
- Tantrums. The child cries, screams, stomps their feet, or curls into a ball.
Parents become adept at dealing with these episodes, but always ask if you can help. You could ask a restaurant to turn down the music, for example, while a worried mother attempts to calm her child.
You can also intervene directly. Experts suggest using a gentle voice and simple commands. Tell the child, “Get up, and stand next to me.” If the child can’t respond, stay nearby and let the meltdown blow through. When the child seems calmer, try the commands.
Autism causes social challenges. Children with autism may seem disinterested in spending time with you, and they may react to your friendly overtures with silence. Underneath it all, some children with autism desperately want friends.
Researchers say people with autism can and do form friendships. Sometimes, they choose others with autism. Other times, they focus primarily on developing relationships with neurotypical adults and children.
Include autistic children in your plans. Invite them to birthday parties. Talk to them when you see them. Find simple activities you both enjoy. Encourage your children to do the same.
Give Time to Respond
Autism can cause slow processing speeds. Children with autism need more time to understand your words, especially if you're speaking in a loud or crowded room.
It's tempting to fill up gaps in conversation with:
- More questions. You might rephrase your original question or look for new things to say.
- Alternate topics. You might switch up the topic, in the hopes that the child will join in.
- Walking away. If the child doesn't speak, you might be tempted to leave the conversation altogether.
Leave space for a child's responses, experts say. If you ask a question, give the child several seconds to respond while you look at the child expectantly. React as soon as the child does, but don't fill up the silences in the interim.
Talk About the Child's Interests
Narrow or extreme interest in specific topics is a core autism symptom. Children can be fascinated by almost anything, including maps, numbers, recipes, geography, and more.
For children with autism, talking about these topics brings comfort. They enjoy sharing knowledge, and they can talk endlessly about the subject without asking for your feedback.
Bond with the child by listening to the topic. Ask questions, if you can. Avoid changing the subject. Just let the child talk until you know one another better.
Accept the Child Fully
Some children with autism seem neurotypical until about age 2, and then they lose skills they’ve gained. It’s distressing for many adults. You saw the child a year or so ago progressing on course, and now the child seems so much different.
Don’t judge the child by past behavior or development. Look for things to enjoy about the child right now. The sweet smile you love, their beautiful blue eyes, and their gentle personality may remain, even if verbal skills decline. Accept the child the way they are right now.
Listen to the Parents
Just as you surround a child with autism with acceptance, do the same for parents. Your support could mean the world to them.
Advocates explain that parents would love a night off to decompress and get away. If you feel comfortable with the idea, offer to babysit. If you don't, provide a listening ear to a parent in need. Schedule a regular coffee date for decompression and chatter, or set up play dates between your children while you both supervise.
What Not to Do With an Autistic Child
Just as there are plenty of steps to support a child with autism, there are many ways to cause harm. Follow a few simple steps to ensure that you're considered a helper.
Don't Approach Parents With Pity
Children with autism may seem different than your own. It’s reasonable to wonder what your life would be like with a child with autism. You might even feel sad at the prospect.
Remember that children with autism are still children. They bring their parents joy, and there’s plenty to be proud of. Approaching parents with pity undermines all that, and some parents take offense to those statements.
Children with autism often listen closely to what adults say, activists explain. Hearing an exchange of pity can make the child feel bad, wrong, or worthless. Your comment could cause more work for already overburdened parents.
Don’t Bark Instructions
Children with autism need more time to process complex verbal commands. Younger children often struggle to understand instructions, and that makes them seem uncooperative.
You could cause a problem for a child if you:
- Offer too many instructions at the same time. "Pick this up, but don't use the handle. Grab it from below."
- Bundle tasks into one complex sentence. "Take this cup and plate into the kitchen, which is right around the corner, and then pick up milk from the refrigerator on the right side, and pour me a cup."
- Give nonspecific feedback. "Watch what you're doing, okay?"
Keep your sentences short and your meaning clear. If the child still can't comply, break down the complexity even further.
Don't Take Things Personally
Children with autism may not respond in a manner you understand or expect. They may walk away from you, ignore you, or have a tantrum.
It’s easy to have hurt feelings, but do your best to keep your emotions in check. The child is working hard to adjust to your expectations and your reality. Be as flexible as you can, and keep trying to form that connection.
Don’t Assume Nonverbal Children Can’t Communicate
Many children with autism don't speak at all. But never assume that they don't have something to say.
For children with autism, behavior is a form of communication. That includes:
- Walking away
Listen to what the child is trying to say. Ignore it, and the behavior may escalate until the child gets the point across.
Don’t Insist on Eye Contact
Adults look one another in the eye when they speak. For children with autism, this is a difficult task. Some children learn to look near your eyes (at your forehead, for example) through practice, but some never pick up this skill.
Never force a child to look into your eyes. Don’t bow down to try to meet the child’s eyes, and don’t point to your own eyes to make the child follow along. Accept the child’s behavior.
Don’t Use Creative Language
Children with autism take things literally. If you sprinkle your conversation with irony, sarcasm, exaggerations, or idioms, you're bound to confuse the child.
For example, don't tell a child to "keep an eye on” something. The child may reach for it and put the item near his face.
Be as literal and direct as you can, so the child knows exactly what you’re talking about.
If you slip and say something unusual, don’t laugh at the child for taking your words literally. Apologize for your mistake, and rephrase the sentence so your meaning is clear. There’s nothing funny about a misunderstanding like this.
Don’t Assume the Child Can’t Hear
Even autistic children who don’t speak may hear and understand what you say. Don’t talk about them as if they don’t exist or aren’t worthy of your attention. Speak directly to them with your questions. If you have nothing nice to say about them, don’t say anything at all.
Activists explain that some people with autism feel compelled to do unusual things. They may flap their hands, jump around, blink their eyes, or make unusual noises. These behaviors help to calm them when they feel overwhelmed.
These are unusual behaviors, but resist the urge to watch them carefully. Some older children may be self-conscious about their behaviors, and they can be embarrassed by your reactions. Younger children may notice your stares and feel blamed for them.
You don't need to document the child's behavior. Just be a gentle presence that doesn't judge. You'll have a friend in no time.
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