Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) isn’t a one-size-fits-all diagnosis. The reality is that, while children on the spectrum can share some characteristics, those at the mild end often face different challenges than kids on the severe end of the spectrum.
Oftentimes, when someone hears the term autism, they think of a child or adult with severe symptoms, said Dr. Christie Babson of Novant Health Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics in Charlotte.
“Not everyone with autism is nonverbal or uninterested in interacting with others,” Babson said. “When you’ve met one child with autism, you’ve only met one child with autism. Every child has different strengths, interests and challenges.”
While each child will have different needs, Babson shared 5 ways to connect and engage with kids on the spectrum.
1. Learn what bothers them
Children with ASD may be hypersensitive to sounds, touch, tastes, smells, light or colors. Sounds that you may not even notice can actually be overwhelming or physically painful someone with autism, for example. Try to be patient and mindful in your approach.
“I like to greet the child and give them space to become comfortable with their surroundings,” she said. “With that time, I can observe and learn some of their interests or preferences, while noting what they may not like. Once they are more comfortable with the sound of my voice and their surroundings, I have a better understanding of how to approach them in a way that resonates with them.”
When overwhelmed, autistic children may engage in coping behaviors like hand flapping, spinning, rocking or other movements.
“No matter how atypical these behaviors may be from the outside looking in, don’t try to stop them,” Babson added.
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2. Keep things simple
Children on the spectrum can have impaired communication skills, so it’s important to say exactly what you mean.
“They can be literal and may miss social cues or sarcasm,” Babson said. “So, it is important to be clear with how you say things.”
Autistic children generally will have difficulties with social communication that often relies on emotions or subtext. Try to be straightforward and avoid phrases that might be confusing.
“It’s important to keep the pace of the conversation at the level the child can maintain. Most of us can process sentences as we hear them, but children with ASD may have to work a little harder to understand what they hear,” she said.
3. Don’t take things personally
Some children may need help learning how to act in different social situations. In most cases, social communication problems – such as maintaining appropriate personal space – affect children as young as 4 – and continue to affect teenagers, though it can lessen with age.
“Children with autism can have difficulty reading body language, social cues and understanding personal space,” Babson said. “They may need support in understanding what’s socially appropriate.”
For example, an autistic child might not make good eye contact when talking to you, argue if what they think you are saying is incorrect, say blunt or direct comments and be unaware he or she is talking too loudly or making too much noise.
It’s important to be patient. And try not to take their behavior personally.
4. Invite them to play
Children learn through play. When parents ask Babson what they can do to help their child, one of the things she recommends is to take them out to places like the playground or a library to give them opportunities to interact with other children.
“Initiating an interaction can be hard,” she said. “Children with autism may have the desire to interact but might not know how to engage friends.”
The idea of new experiences may overwhelm a child with autism. And in some cases, they may not want to play. That’s OK.
“It’s still important to ask,” Babson said. “Open that door in the event they want to play but aren’t sure how to begin. And respect their boundaries if they are not open to it.”
5. Understand it’s a journey
“I’ve heard from parents of children with mild autism who say it’s hurtful when someone says their child doesn’t ‘look autistic’,” Babson said.
Even if it’s meant as a compliment, consider this first: It’s often been such a journey for these families. They may have worked really hard to help their child progress, pouring hours into therapy or other things, so try not to diminish their effort with a mindless comment.
“Children with autism have many strengths,” Babson said. “Perhaps that’s what we focus on.”