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 and the severe end often face very different challenges.
“A lot of people think that when someone has autism, they are on the severe end of the spectrum,” said Dr. Angelica Robles of Novant Health Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics. “They think that autism means someone is nonverbal and can’t do a lot of things. That’s not true at all.”
Moreover, she said, “When you’ve seen one child with autism, you’ve only met one child with autism because each child is different and may exhibit different strengths and obstacles.”
While each child with autism will have different needs, here are some general tips on interacting with children who have ASD:
1. Learn what bothers them
Children on the autism spectrum may be hypersensitive to sounds, touch, tastes, smells, light or colors. For example, sounds that others might not notice can be overwhelming or physically painful to a child with autism.
“I think one of the most important things you can do is observe and understand that some things you’re doing may bother them,” Robles said. “Sometimes children with autism can get overwhelmed by their sensitivities, so it’s OK to walk away and give them space.”
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 these behaviors.
2. Keep things simple
Because children with ASD can have impaired communication skills, it’s important to say exactly what you mean.
“Children with ASD often take things pretty literally,” Robles said. “If a person tells a joke or says something sarcastic, they may not know or understand and could get upset.”
Try to be straightforward and avoid phrases that might be confusing. Autistic children generally will have difficulties with social communication that often relies on emotions or subtext.
It’s important to keep the pace of the conversation at the level the child can maintain. For most of us, we can process sentences as we hear them. Children with ASD may have to work a little harder to understand what they hear.
3. Don’t take things personally
Many children on the autism spectrum 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, though the problems lessen with age, continue to affect teenagers.
“Children with autism also have difficulty reading body language, social cues and personal space,” Robles said. “They often have difficulties 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 understand that children with autism don’t always understand the social norms. Try not to take anything they do personally.
4. Invite them to play
“I always encourage parents with a child on the spectrum to give their child opportunities to interact and play with ‘typically’ developing peers,” Robles said. In many cases, children with autism have the desire to interact with others, but may not know how to engage friends or may be overwhelmed by the idea of new experiences.
In some cases, children with autism might not want to play and that’s OK. But it’s important to ask as a lot of autistic children might not know how to go up to others.
5. Understand it’s a ‘journey’
“I think one common comment raised by parents that have children with milder symptoms of autism, is that it can be hurtful when someone says their child ‘doesn’t look autistic.’” Robles said. “It’s been such a journey for these families. Although they have made progress along the way, there have been many hardships and there will be continued challenges.”
Children and families put a lot of work and hours into therapy to help further development.
“While some may have a couple of challenges or delays, children with autism have a lot of great strengths,” said Robles. And that, she said, is what people should focus on.