How to Actually Help Children With Autism

Autism Awareness Month is in full swing. I am starting to see several friends on Facebook with blue frames around their profile pic. Other SLP bloggers I follow are talking about it.

And that is all great. Really, I think awareness is awesome.

But today, I want to discuss three easy ways to actually help children with autism. After all, that is the end goal, right?

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1. Teach your child(ren) how to interact with children with autism
Children are great at including others in their play. But when it comes to a child with autism, sometimes neither of them have the social skills to make the play actually happen.

The good news is you can teach your child some basic skills that will make play easier.

a) Explain the play/game before it actually happens. Children with autism often need concrete expectations and rules. Teach your child to say, ” We are playing ____________, do you want to play?” and then, “This is how we are playing it.” Yes, I know that sounds bossy, but children with autism may need that structure.

b) Teach your child to be good conversationalists. Children with autism may perseverate on one or two topics, and may not notice that their conversational partner isn’t interested. Teach your child to be a good listener, and then move into teaching them how to guide a conversation.

I know, I know. Easier said than done. And since I remember less-than-fondly textbooks with vague concepts with no examples, here’s how I would approach this:

  • Play turn-taking games with rapid turnover. Go Fish, Candyland and Sorry all come to mind. These lay the foundation for the concept of taking turns, including transition phrases like, “Now it’s my turn.” This easily translates into a guiding a conversation.
  • Play games like “Telephone” and “Simon Says” to encourage a child to listen more carefully.
  • Talk about how some kids LOVE to talk about one or two things. Maybe teach your child to learn 2 new facts about a topic when talking to another child. Then they could suggest a different topic. I would role-play to practice this.

c) Teach your kids about “cool-offs.” Children with autism tend to get overwhelmed easier, and they may manifest it in different ways. Some will shut down, some will cry, and some will hit or push. Teach your child that when they see these “signs” to let their friend “cool-off.” They aren’t in trouble, but they need some time alone to have feelings and calm down. What’s important here is that your child doesn’t forget about the other child; give them 5 minutes and then check in to see if they want to play or need more cool-off time.

See, not so hard, right? I mean, these are basically teaching your child how to be a good person. They’re just tailored a bit to children with autism.

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2. Offer Mom and Dad some down time.
I have such respect for parents of children with autism and other developmental delays. Day in and day out they handle the struggles of daily living, putting out one fire as two more start. They just want the best for their child.

If you personally know a child with autism, offer to watch them for a few hours. Don’t give the quintessential, “If you need me to watch him/her, give me a call.” Say, “I want to watch your child to give you a bit of free time or even (gasp) a date. What day works this week?”

If you don’t personally know a child with autism, look into respite care. Where I live, there is a great resource called Kids on the Move. One of the great things they do is offer childcare at their center for parents of special needs children. You can volunteer for two hours a month, once a week, whatever fits your schedule. It gives the parents a few hours to focus on their relationship or attend one of their classes.

We all know the rule: You have to take care of yourself before you can take care of others. This gives parents an opportunity to do so.

3. Change the conversation. 

As an SLP I am used to speaking the professional lingo and using/avoiding specific terms. While this is starting to become mainstream, I thought I would mention it here.

  • Most parents won’t object to “autistic child,” but the term “child with autism” is a little more appropriate. Autism doesn’t define a child; it’s only part of who they are.
  • I can’t believe I even have to say this in 2017, but words like “retarded” are beyond hurtful and not even accurate. The only appropriate use of “retarded” is when talking about flame retardant clothing.
  • Focus on the positives. Parents of children with special needs sit through endless IEPs, doctor’s appointments, and specialist evaluations outlining their child’s struggles. Try to mention positive things about their child or comment on their progress (if you have known them for a while).
  • Try to avoid using absolutes when talking about a child. Things like “never” and “always” can be discouraging. Instead, use phrases like “not yet” or “starting to” or “learning to.”

Well there you have it! Three ways to make a difference in the lives of children and parents dealing with autism.