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?


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.


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.


I Think My Child Has Autism

I think my child has autism

Autism. The “A” word of today’s generation.

You don’t want to say it out loud, because that might make it true.

And if it’s true, your entire world just got turned upside down.

You’ve noticed that your child behaves a little differently than other kids his age. He doesn’t use as many words, and he won’t make eye contact. He also seems like he is in his own little world most of the time. And light switches. What is the deal with the light switches?

So where do you start? If he does have the dreaded “A” word, he needs help. And you need support.

Because this is a BIG DEAL.

First off, you need to visit your pediatrician. Your pediatrician will refer you to early intervention services after a discussion of your child’s behavior and your concerns.

This is something that the city/county is required by law to offer, so don’t let anyone tell you there are no resources available. Children ages 0-2 are evaluated by early intervention services. In several areas, Easter Seals works with the city to offer these evaluations and clinicians.

Your child’s evaluation will depend on your pediatrician’s referral. It can include things such as language development, cognitive skills, and physical abilities (fine/gross motor movement, vision, hearing, etc.).

If your child qualifies, these services are typically offered on a weekly or monthly basis, with goals listed on an IFSP, or an Individualized Family Services Plan. There is usually a lot of emphasis on teaching interventions that parents can do as well, at home.

If your child is ages 3-5, then it is the school district’s responsibility to find and assess potential special-needs children. Once again, this is a law, not an option. The district I worked at was large enough that there was an Early Intervention Assessment Center, but you may need to get in contact with the speech therapist at your local school.

If your child qualifies, the appropriate special education teachers and therapists will work with you to create an IEP, or an Individualized Education Plan. This is a legal document that summarizes the testing results as well as lists your child’s goals. It is good for 3 years, and there will be an IEP renewal meeting annually.

Whoa. Let’s pause.

But what about you, the parent?

I haven’t forgotten about you.

This process seems crazy and unfamiliar and maybe you’re doubting your ability to parent an autistic child.

Maybe you were already doubting your ability to parent a child at all.

Honestly, you wouldn’t be a parent if you never felt that way.

I am here to tell you that your child and your life can be every bit as happy, rewarding, and fulfilling as you imagined it would be, diagnosis or not.

It comes from a willingness to accept a new normal. In this normal, progress is still celebrated. But that progress may be baby steps, rather than leaps and bounds.

But it is still progress.

Communication occurs, but only with hard work, highly motivating rewards, and possibly alternative forms of communication.

But your child will communicate.

There will be those frustrating moments when you just want to run and hide and cry.

There will also be those moments that you are so proud of your child you feel you are going to burst.

And in those moments, you’ll realize…you do have a normal life.