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Mental Health

Interacting with a Child Who Has Autism Spectrum Disorder

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a developmental disorder that affects how children interact and communicate with others. The disorder is called a spectrum disorder because children can fall anywhere on the autism spectrum.

Children with ASD begin to show symptoms of the condition at an early age. The symptoms continue throughout childhood and adulthood. Healthcare providers don’t know why some children develop ASD. It may be a combination of genes they are born with and something in their environment that triggers those genes.

Children with ASD have trouble relating to other people. They have trouble making eye contact. They often withdraw into themselves and may seem uninterested in relating to family members.

But some children with ASD may love to keep talking with family members, friends, and even strangers about a topic they are obsessed with. The problem is that they may talk about it too long. Or they may talk only about that one subject. This can push other people away.

If you are a parent or grandparent of a child with ASD, it can be heartbreaking if you feel like you just can't connect with him or her. But learning more about these disorders and what has helped others can help you and your relationship.

Breaking through the barriers of ASD

ASD has no cure. But there is hope through treatment. Many children are able to learn to communicate and interact. Healthcare providers and mental health experts have learned a lot about how to break through to these children.

Here are some things we know about children with an ASD:

  • They may not be able to understand your nonverbal communications. They may not react to your smile or frown.

  • They take things literally. You need to be careful to say exactly what you mean. If you hurry the child by saying "Step on it," don't be surprised if he or she asks what to step on.

  • They may only be able to handle one thought or idea at a time. Keep conversations focused and simple.

  • They may want to only talk about the one thing they are really interested in at a given time.

  • They may perceive things differently than you do. You may not even notice ordinary sounds, tastes, touches, smells, and sights. But these may be physically painful to the child.

Communication and interaction tips for ASD

There are no hard-and-fast rules on how to communicate with a child with ASD. But many family members have had success with these tips:

  • Be patient. It often takes a child with ASD longer to process information. You may need to slow down your conversation to his or her speed.

  • Teach the child how to express anger without being too aggressive. Children with ASD should know that they don't have to hold their anger and frustration inside.

  • Be persistent yet resilient. Don't let your feelings get hurt if the child does not respond to you as you'd like. Children with ASD may have trouble both showing and controlling their emotions. They can be blunt in their responses. Don't take this personally.

  • Always stay positive. Children with ASD respond best to positive reinforcement. Be sure to talk about or reward good behavior.

  • Ignore irritating attention-getting behavior. Kids with ASD may act badly at times to get you to focus on them. Ignoring this behavior is often the best way to prevent it.

  • Interact through physical activity. Children with ASD tend to have short attention spans. This is especially true when it comes to communicating. Running around and playing outside may be a better way of sharing time together. It will also let them relax and feel calmer.

  • Be affectionate. Children with ASD often need a hug, just like other children.

  • Show your love and interest. Children with ASD may have trouble showing their feelings, but they still need to know that you love them. Go out of your way to express your interest, caring, and support.

  • Believe. A child with autism is first and foremost a child. He or she is a growing person with unknown potential. Believe in what the child can do. Don’t define the child by a diagnosis.  

  • Take care of yourself. It’s OK to take a break. Join parent support groups. Or ask understanding family and friends to care for your child so you can recharge. School psychologists and counselors can also provide resources to help you.

It can be challenging to interact with a child or grandchild with ASD. But it is one of the most important things you can do to help that child learn. Research shows that early, frequent, and loving involvement of family members is one of the best ways to help children with ASD. 

Online Medical Reviewer: Ballas, Paul, DO
Online Medical Reviewer: Fraser, Marianne, MSN, RN
Date Last Reviewed: 5/1/2017
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