Children on the Autism Spectrum: How Parents Can Provide Communication-Skills Training

If you have a child with High-Functioning Autism (HFA), one of his or her greatest challenges is in the area of communication...

As a parent, you will want to (a) communicate in ways that will support your youngster's ease of understanding, and (b) discover how best to assist your youngster in deciphering communication in everyday conversation. Your youngster wants to be socially accepted by his peers and others, and your efforts to foster a mutual comfort level where communication is concerned will be critical in achieving this goal.

How to help your child develop communications skills:

1. Accept your youngster's (a) “ballpark” approximation of direct eye contact if he stares at your ears, mouth, or some area of your face other than your eyes while you are talking, (b) his need to look away from your eyes in order to formulate a thoughtful, articulate response, and (c) his need to make fleeting eye contact, look away, and then look back.

2. Allow for process time in between steps of instruction. After you've finished talking, give your youngster a chance to ask clarifying questions. Also, ask your youngster if he's ready for more information before going on to the next piece of instruction.

3. Allow your child to make liberal use of the computer. Computers are a tremendous benefit to kids with HFA. The computer is liberating because your youngster is free from social pressures with regard to immediacy of response, body language, facial expressions, personal space issues, and eye contact in conversation.

4. As part of “communication-skills training,” request your youngster to model his recall of others' body language and facial expressions, or model them yourself and ask, “Is this what you saw?”

5. Be cautious about over-loading your youngster with too much information all in one shot. As your youngster's mother or father, you will be able to best gauge how much or how little your youngster can absorb at once.

6. Because your youngster will probably interpret others' communications in a very literal sense, he will expect you to do the same. So in communicating with your youngster, do what you say you're going to do by keeping your promises — you'll be held to it!

7. Before giving your youngster instruction, ask him to prepare to make pictures or movies of what you're conveying. Check back on this during your communication by saying something like, “Can you see it?” or “Do you see what that's supposed to look like?”

8. Counsel your youngster in the nuances of neurotypical (i.e., non-autistic) behavior, especially as he enters his teen years (a time when children rely less on their moms and dads and interact with greater social freedom).

9. Develop a written list of key phrases that your youngster can use as a socially acceptable entry into conversation (e.g., “Hey, what's up?” … “What's new with you?” … “What did you do over the weekend?” … “What did you watch on TV last night?”).

10. Ensure your youngster's understanding of what you've communicated by asking him to describe what you've just said.

11. For your youngster, getting the “hang of” people may just come harder and require more effort to understand. The goal isn't one of mastery, but of knowing just enough to get by and be okay.

12. If you must break a promise, apologize to your youngster as soon as possible and let him know precisely when you will fix the situation or make it right.

13. If your youngster tends to have a flat affect, you may be unable to tell through body language or facial expressions if he understands what you have said — even if he says he does.

14. Know that your youngster may be challenged when interacting with peers and others because he: (a) doesn't understand how to maintain personal space, (b) has difficulty understanding the rhythmic flow (i.e., “give and take”) of conversation, (c) has trouble deciphering people's body language, (d) is brutally direct and honest, which may be offensive to others, and (e) talks off topic or interjects information that doesn't fit the moment.

15. Many kids with HFA will not be as successful as they could be when given instruction if they are required to make direct eye contact while you deliver your instruction. Many moms and dads demand direct eye contact from their neurotypical kids by saying something like, “Look at me when I'm talking to you!” But for the youngster on the autism spectrum, NOT making eye contact will help him retain information much better. The youngster with HFA who appears not to be listening may be taking in all – or nearly all – of what you are saying, as opposed to the youngster who is compelled to make direct eye contact to “prove” he is paying attention.

16. Most kids on the spectrum are visual thinkers (i.e., they think in constant streams of images and life-event “memory” movies). This way of thinking is a flowing, seamless, and natural manner of thought for many of these children.

17. Reinforce that it is always considered acceptable to politely request that someone repeat what they've said, or ask for clarification by simply stating, “I don't know what you mean. Can you please say it another way?”

18. Slow down and carefully measure the amount of information you dispense to your child in order to avoid confusion. If your youngster is unable to visualize what you verbally communicate, he is less likely to retain it.

19. Slow the pace of your instruction — especially if it's about something new and different. Also, rethink what you intend to communicate. Can it be simplified?

20. Sometimes you will want to simply abandon all expectations of trying to understand what just happened in favor of providing a gentle hug or allowing your youngster to have a good cry or personal space to temporarily shut down. These “unspoken” communications may have as much, if not more, impact than your verbal communications in the moment.

21. The youngster with an autism spectrum disorder says what he means and means what he says (e.g., ‘no’ means ‘no’ and ‘yes’ means ‘yes’). Your youngster's anxiety and frustration will likely escalate if you repeatedly ask the same question or ask him to change his mind without explanation.

22. Your child’s idea of communication to others, or expressive language, may be skewed from what is considered the norm. Try “debriefing” social situations that were confusing or upsetting to your child by privately, gently, and respectfully deconstructing them portion by portion.

23. Try reaching your youngster with pressing questions and concerns by sending him an email (you may get a reply that will surprise and enlighten your own understanding of the situation at hand).

24. Try videoing at family gatherings, picnics, parties, while playing games, or some other activity, and then use the video as “communication-skills training” to deconstruct your child’s social interactions (do this as naturally as possible; if your youngster knows you are singling him out, he may “overact” and play to the camera).

25. Know that your youngster may be quite challenged in his ability to process receptive language (i.e., understanding what others are communicating). You may be frustrated by his apparent unawareness of the social repercussions of interrupting or saying something with brutal directness.

More resources for parents of children and teens on the autism spectrum:

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