Communication Barriers and How to Overcome Them: Tips for Parents of Kids on the Autism Spectrum

As parents, we want our "special needs" kids to respect our rules and expectations. One of the best ways to do this is to listen first - and talk later. Your undivided attention to what your child is saying tells him that he is important to you. It shows that you value him as an individual. 
You care about him and every part of his life. As a result, your child will be more likely to want to please you (by following your rules and expectations). Also, you will be teaching him to be a good listener by modeling good listening skills. 


Be prepared to drop what you are doing when your child with ASD level 1, or High-Functioning Autism (HFA), wants to talk, even when it is not the most convenient time for you. She may finally get up the courage to discuss a tough problem, and you don't want to miss the opportunity to connect with her through active listening.

Here are the steps to active listening:
  • Ask open-ended questions. Avoid asking questions that can be answered with a yes or no.
  • Be interested and attentive. Look into your child's eyes while she is speaking. Forget about the telephone, the television, and whatever else you were doing—just listen!
  • Don't interrupt. Sometimes, as moms and dads, we want to jump into the conversation with an opinion or a solution before letting our child finish talking. By being an active listener, we can help him work through an issue on his own instead of solving the problem for him.
  • Don't talk down to your child no matter what his age. You probably know more than he does from experience alone, but don't use this knowledge to discount his opinions. Don't say, for example, "You're only 14. What do you know about…?"
  • Follow-up. Try to remember and ask about issues or events your child talked about a day or two earlier. This shows her that you were listening and are concerned about the outcomes.
  • Give your child active feedback while she is speaking—nodding, giving verbal responses such as "I see," etc. When she has finished speaking, ask clarifying questions or restate what she's said. If she is telling you something she is enthusiastic about, for example, try to respond with similar enthusiasm.
  • Name the feeling You can help your child clarify his feelings through your active feedback by restating his thoughts or asking questions. This can help him deal with a problem or tackle a difficult task. He can clarify, for example, that he's avoiding his homework because he's afraid he can't do the math. Facing this fear will help him overcome it.
  • Watch for nonverbal messages. Posture, eye contact, and energy level—these can all be clues to your child's true feelings. She may tell you school is going okay but her nonverbal messages may tell a different story.


Talking to your child on the autism spectrum sometimes can be a bit difficult. Maybe you start to chat with your child and you get a "look" that immediately stops conversation. Or, maybe she wants to talk to you, but you're focusing on paying the bills and are not giving her your full attention.

Studies show, however, that talking to "special needs" kids does have an impact, so it's important to make the effort to really communicate. Below are some common communication barriers and how to overcome them. Remember, not all of these will work in all situations, and sometimes you'll need to keep trying:
  • Blaming or preaching: Instead of saying things that make your child feel bad ("You're so stupid for doing that," or "I said so, that's why"), try using constructive "I" messages like "So, what I hear you saying is…" Offer advice and suggestions: "Let's consider what your options are and figure out the best solution…"
  • Criticizing: Let your child know that you respect her feelings and that what she has to say and how she feels are important. Even if you think a problem is minor, for example, if your child is upset because his friend wouldn't sit next to him, it's a big deal to him. It's hard to open up sometimes and if you make your child feel uncomfortable, chances are he will simply avoid having honest conversations with you.
  • Interrupting: Let your child talk without interrupting her—you will have your turn to speak. This lets your child know that you are interested in what she is saying.
  • Not creating a comfortable environment in which your child can talk: Select a good time to talk to your child—right after school or basketball practice might not be the best time to start a dialog. Let your child have a snack or take a few minutes to rest, and then start the conversation.
  • Not paying full attention to your child: Turn off the TV or radio. Make eye contact with your child—sit next to him if you need to.

Remember to praise your HFA child when he demonstrates good listening skills. It's just as important to develop these skills in your child as it is in you!

Effective communication (i.e., the sharing of ideas, opinions, and information) helps you to build bonds with your child. Doing this right with your child will encourage positive behaviors in her, help to build trust, and create a more peaceful atmosphere in the home. Not getting this right, however, could cause frustration in your child and stress in the family. Does what you say to your child encourage her to behave in ways that please you? If you don’t like your answer to this question, check your day-to-day dealings with your child.

You may not be getting the response you expect from your child if:
  • You act like a bully toward your child.
  • You allow your child to break rules without consequences.
  • You always answer her question “why do I have to?” with “because I said so.”
  • You ask your child to do more than he is able to for his age.
  • You complain about what your child is doing wrong, but never praise her when she does something well.
  • You give too little instructions.
  • You give too many instructions at a time.
  • You let your child call the shots every time and never take charge.
  • You never admit to being wrong.
  • You never take the time to explain “why.”
  • You use silence to show your disapproval.
  • Your child sees you doing the actions that you tell her not to do.

Sending mixed or unclear messages when you talk with your HFA child could hurt his self-esteem and open the door to problem behavior. Here are some ways to talk with your child more effectively and build a stronger bond: 
  • “Because I say so” is not the best answer—explain the reasons why.
  • Be careful about asking too much—because of age or ability a child may not be able to do some tasks well. Especially for new tasks, give detailed instructions for the chores you want your child to do.
  • Be specific—don’t leave things open to interpretation.
  • Do not ask something of your child you are not willing to do yourself—don’t yell at your child for lying and then ask her to lie to someone for you.
  • Do things together—use these opportunities to talk with and learn about your child.
  • Expect set-backs—but deal with them as soon as they happen. Talk about things that you don’t like about your child’s actions. Find a solution together, even when discipline is involved.
  • Give a little—your child is still learning, and your responsibility is to teach with understanding.
  • It’s o.k. to negotiate sometimes—it teaches your child the benefits of “give and take” which he may find useful later in life.
  • Reward your child for doing well—praise for a job well done will make your child feel good about herself and eager to please you in other things.
  • Some decisions need time—your child will see that you care about what he cares about by giving serious thought to issues that are important to him, before just saying “no.”
  • Talk with your child and not to or through him—this means listening as well as responding.
  • Treat your child with respect—don’t yell at your child and call her names. She will only learn from your example. Speak to your child in the same manner you would like her to speak to you.
  • You’re the grown-up—have the final say about important decisions, but explain to your child the reasons why you have made the decision.

Having adults in the “take charge” role makes kids on the autism spectrum feel secure and adds to their mental well-being. However, children who think they are not being treated fairly by adults could become angry and mistrustful of authority. Such children are more likely to be influenced by peers to be involved in unhealthy behaviors. Good adult-child communication can go a long way in deterring unsafe behaviors and influencing the choices HFA kids make for a lifetime. 
I Statements-

Healthy communication is critical to relationships, but is especially important between parent and child. Is your child listening? Does she understand you? Is your message really getting through? Showing your child how to communicate is part of parenting, but it becomes especially difficult in times of conflict.

One way to communicate with your child is by using feeling language or "I" statements—a way of expressing how you feel about a situation without placing blame or drawing a defensive or argumentative response from your child.1 Saying "you did this wrong" or "you did that bad thing" often makes people feel angry and hostile. "I" statements can help you communicate your feelings to your child in a way that makes him likely to respond with respect. "I" statements also provide HFA kids with clear, direct messages and help them understand that their actions have effects on other people. Here are a few examples:
  • When you scream loudly, I feel upset because it hurts my ears.
  • When you try to talk to me when I am on the phone, I feel annoyed because then I have to try to listen to more than one person.

"I" statements also can be used to express positive feelings:
  • When you do your homework, I feel proud because I think that school is important.
  • To begin using "I" statements, follow a basic format of three parts: When…(provide nonjudgmental description of behavior), I feel…(name your feeling), and Because…(give the effect the behavior has on you or others).

Resources for parents of children and teens on the autism spectrum:

==> Videos for Parents of Children and Teens with ASD
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