As written for Autism Parenting Magazine, Issue 95
Author: Erica Crowley, BCBA, is the Manager at Invo Behavior and Therapy Services’ Belfort Oaks Therapy Center in Jacksonville, Florida. (a sister-company to PBC)
Parents often worry that friends and extended family don’t spend enough time getting to know their children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and tend to overlook them at gatherings and parties.
Many adults aren’t sure how to engage with a child who isn’t verbal or doesn’t respond to social cues. They might be uncomfortable when a child vocalizes, jumps or flaps his/her arms. As a result, adults often focus on neurotypical kids instead.
That’s unfortunate. Kids on the spectrum have the same feelings as other children, and it hurts to be left out. They’re also just as much fun.
Extended family and friends probably don’t realize that getting to know a child on the spectrum isn’t much different than getting to know any child. By offering some guidance, parents can help adults build rewarding relationships with their kids who have autism.
Choose the right time to connect
The excitement and activity of parties can be a lot of sensory input for children on the spectrum. So, it’s always best to approach a child when he/she is calm and comfortable.
Look or a time when a child is playing alone in the sandbox, petting the dog, or building something with Legos. Try sitting down and saying hi. A gesture such as high-five is an excellent way to break the ice. Most kids know it and will respond.
Then follow up with a question. It can be as simple as, “what are you making?” or “What’s the dog’s name?” Or you can offer a comment along the lines of “Nice tower you’re building” or “I love dogs too.”
Find shared interests with the child
Neurotypical kids usually have a wider range of interests, which makes it easy for adults to connect with them. Children on the spectrum tend to have narrower and deep interests from letter to cards, numbers, dinosaurs, or almost anything.
Ask the parents what interests their child has and find ways to share it. If a child loves dinosaurs, ask which dinosaurs he/she likes and why. Bring a dinosaur coloring book and crayons to the next event and spend a few minutes coloring together. Find an age-appropriate dinosaur puzzle and invite the child to work on the puzzle with you or sit and encourage him/her while he/she does it.
The child’s interests may change or expand as they get older. Or they may not. By asking the parents and making a little effort, you can always find fun ways to spend time with a child, regardless of whether he/she has autism.
Create a ritual to build a relationship
Doing a special thing each time you see a child is a great way to build a relationship. A secret handshake, a goofy riddle or a simple magic trick will delight both of you. Creating a ritual helps a child recognize you’re interested in him/her and look forward to seeing you at gatherings and parties.
A greeting or hello that’s just between the two of you also helps a child feel included. Kids with autism are often passed over in social situations and may have a hard time identifying cues that help them pay with other kids or connect with adults.
Taking time to engage with a child in something fun means a lot to the child and his/her parents. It’s also an easy way to help a child practice social skills, which are usually a priority for kids on the spectrum.
Talking is not needed to communicate
Some kids with autism don’t speak. But that doesn’t mean they don’t communicate or that you can’t connect or have fun with them. Talk to a child while he/she plays or try a gesture game such a rock-paper-scissors.
Some non-verbal kids communicate by using cards with pictures on them called the Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS), a voice-output device, or sign language. Parents can tell you more about these methods and how you can encourage the child to communicate with them. If a child uses sign language, it’s easy to learn to say hi and ask simple questions.
Keep in mind that kids on the spectrum who don’t speak usually do understand. You can help a child feel special by telling him/her what you like about them. Compliment the child when he/she does something well. Let a child know how fun you’re having. Kids with autism rarely hear this kind of praise, and they need and deserve it as much as any child.
Parents will also appreciate hearing what you enjoy their child. They’ll likely be delighted that your making an effort and value their son’s or daughter’s unique qualities.
Rocking and flapping are okay
Everyone uses repetitive movements all the time. Whether it’s drumming your fingers, sighing loudly tapping a pencil, or biting your nails, these self-stimulatory behaviors help relieve tension.
Children with autism are no different, although their behaviors are often more noticeable. Kids on the spectrum may rock, spin, shout unexpectedly, flap their arms, repeat a word, and so on. Adults often find stimming disruptive, but it’s nothing more than the way a child copes with sensory overload or adapts to a new place.
If you’re playing with a child who starts stimming, let it go. Offer the child a toy, start a game, or ask a question. If the child isn’t hurting himself/herself, there’s no need to try to stop or change the behavior.
Start small and recognize success
Don’t get discouraged if a child with autism doesn’t immediately respond to your efforts. Most kids need time to warm up to adults they don’t see regularly and children on the spectrum often take longer to adjust to new people and situations.
Starting small and being consistent will help a child get comfortable with you. Over time, if you spend a few minutes saying hi, asking about his/her interests, and doing your secret handshake, a child will learn that you’re a friend and be glad to see you.
He/She may come up to greet you. Smile when you approach or even start your special ritual. Maybe a child will enjoy spending 15 minutes coloring wit you instead of 5 or 10 minutes.
Adults expect these behaviors from neurotypical kids, but kids with autism usually make progress more slowly. Take the time to acknowledge and celebrate these successes. Praise the child, offer a high-five or a hug, or tell the child how happy you feel when he/she spends time with you.
Accept, connect, and enjoy
Acceptance is essential to building a relationship with any child. Most adults don’t think twice when neurotypical children have unique personalities, interests, and behaviors. Children on the spectrum are the same. Kids with autism experience the world differently, but they need and deserve the same acceptance.
Equally important, children with autism have the same emotions as other children but may not be able to express them. Most adults will go out of their way to avoid hurting a child’s feelings but may not realize that overlooking a child with autism in favor of neurotypical kids is hurtful. It’s also unnecessary.
Getting to know a child with autism isn’t much different from getting to know any child and is just as rewarding. Spend time focusing on the child. Engage in his/her interests. Celebrate the child’s unique qualities. Praise the successes. Those are the keys to building a fun relationship that’s a source of joy for everyone.