7 tips to engage with kids on the spectrum

Hello Everyone,

Wish you all a very happy new year.

Beginning of every year, most of us spend some time introspecting and aim to become better. Though it is slightly late for a new year resolution, I believe it’s never too late to learn something new.

Today, let’s learn a few tips to engage better with kids on the spectrum. 

Children with autism can remember lyrics of hundreds of songs, full scripts of ads or stories, but mostly they don’t understand their meaning. Such a situation can get tricky as they give a false impression of language understanding. This is true especially when they have relatively milder challenges and at a glance look like any other kid their age. You might notice they communicate or act differently, but you may not be sure about how to interact with them. So here are a few tips from my own experiences.

1. Make a genuine effort and be patient 

Talking to kids with autism can be difficult as well as draining, hence, many adults (including family members) take the easy way out and do not attempt to hit a conversation. Even when they do, they stick to the most basic hi-hellos. It is a huge mistake; kids with autism need to be involved in making meaningful conversations. Eventually, they start enjoying it, but you have to make a lot of failed attempts before you hit the goal post.

2. Keep making small variations to vocabulary

It is always recommended to use familiar words and dialogues while engaging with these kids, but make sure it is not a mugged-up script with zero variation. Choice of familiar words is advised, but an exact replay of dialogues is not a good idea. Making simple variations will push the kid’s speech to the next level, and at the same time, it will ensure that they think before they respond. It is very common to see an autoplay reaction from them. 

E.g., you may have an autistic child say something like this on every single phone call.

“I am fine. I had dinner. I ate rice. I went to school. I played. Ok Bye”

This autoplay happens because they are being asked the same set of questions in the same order every day.

Q: How are you? A: I am fine.

Q: Did you have dinner? A. I had dinner.

Q. What did you eat? A. I ate rice.

Q. Did you go to school? A. I went to school

And so on.

3. Choose a topic as per their interest

Most kids with autism have a few favorites that they are crazy about. It could be a toy or a food item or a song or a cartoon or anything that they like. There is always a higher chance of participation if you incorporate their favorites into your conversation. Use their interest to build more language and engagement; you can also use these for positive reinforcement. Once you have hit the right chord then you will find a lot more topics to experiment with.

4. Use gestures along with words

Since language can be tough and overwhelming, support the same with gestures. Be a little dramatic to get their attention. Please don’t expect a child with autism to come and engage with you while you are lazying around. Just calling them is not enough; they can ignore tens of name calls royally, leaving you a bit frustrated. 

Be dramatic, be mad, be expressive, and have child-like energy.

5. Keep it short and to the point

Stay away from allusions or any abstract statements. Do not beat around the bush. Keep your sentences short and direct. For most of us, processing sentences as we hear them is second nature and happens almost instantly. However, it often takes a child with autism longer to process information. You may need to slow down your pace to match his or her speed.

6. Say what you mean

Kids on the spectrum understand stuff literally. Most of them don’t get humor and sarcasm. They interpret language at its face value. So keep it plain and simple; they are not an appropriate audience to show off your command over a language! 

E.g., One day, my son was requesting to be in front of the lift while I didn’t want that, as he had been doing that for an hour. He kept insisting; his requests started with a soft permission-seeking tone but soon he was shouting from the top of his lungs. I got irritated and said, please do not talk to me and go to the lift. Guess what, he followed my command 🙂 

7. Be affectionate and respectful

Children with Autism are very observant so they will notice everything, including your attitude towards them.

Trevor Pacelli

Children with autism often need a hug, just like other children. Sometimes they need this much more than other kids. Show your love and affection. They may have trouble showing their feelings, but they still need to know that you love them. Go out of your way to express your interest, caring, and support.

PS – some children don’t like to be touched. Respect their personal space and never force physical affection on an unwilling child.

It can be challenging to interact with a child with autism but it is one of the most important things you can do to help that child learn. Research shows that early, frequent, and loving involvement of family and friends is one of the best ways to help them grow into an independent adult.

Next time, when you happen to meet a child on the spectrum, do pause to engage with them.

For more such insights and real-life examples, please check out my book, When I Met The “Unexpected” – A Guide For All Parents and help make this world an inclusive place for everyone. 

Now available in Hindi as well.

Take Care
Learn, Accept, Intervene 

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