You’ve learnt to recognize the signs of autism. You’ve consulted your GP and reviewed the medical literature about autism spectrum disorder. You’ve opened your mind to the full range of autism therapies, treatments and environmental influences.
And, yet, you continue to struggle to build meaningful connections with your autistic child.
Communication challenges are particularly acute for parents of nonverbal children with autism spectrum disorder. With limited ability to affirmatively convey their feelings and concerns, nonverbal children live in a frustrating and often frightening world.
Parents new to the autism experience are sorely disappointed to learn that no magic solution waits. For all the millions of pounds poured into autism research by private benefactors like Larry Ellison and Sanjay Shah, innovative charities like the Autism Research Trust, and the U.K. government, scientists have yet to uncover a permanent fix for the communication challenges that vex parents and children alike.
Unless and until such a solution is found, it’s up to you to facilitate communication as best you can. Use these nine best practices to guide you—and remember to mark small milestones in your struggle for better communication whenever they occur.
- Pay Strict Attention to Your Child’s Wishes
Never forget that your child is in charge, not the other way around. Whenever you’re engaged with your child, pay close attention to their wishes. Let them guide your interaction, choose your activities, tell you (however they can) what they are thinking and feeling. If they are unwilling or unable to do so, learn to recognize when your child has ceased enjoying themselves. Then develop situation-specific strategies to redirect them towards a more pleasant activity.
- Give Your Child Space to Speak or Communicate Nonverbally
In other words: Listen. Children who struggle to communicate verbally, or whose verbal communication is inconsistent or ineffective, cannot magically be made to talk at a moment’s notice.
When you attempt to elicit verbal responses by speaking “at” your child or asking them abstract questions that demand spoken answers, you may further your child’s confusion and uncertainty, actively discouraging them from even attempting to use their words. Instead, allow for long periods of silence and stillness during play. This gives your child every opportunity to reach out and make their wishes known, strengthening your bond in the process.
- Use Visual Aids
Some non-communicative children are astute visual learners. Their eyes light up when presented with colorful, engaging visual aids, and they’re more likely to respond to cues (even if nonverbally) and make their feelings known as a result. If you are not sure how best to proceed with your visual communication endeavors, try a visual support kit from one of the many reputable autism support organizations—it could very well expand your child’s horizons.
- Use Gestures and Other Nonverbal Communication Techniques
Simple hand gestures, facial movements and body language cues can open up an entirely new world of communication between you and your child. Focus on universal gestures that your child can easily understand and repeat, such as pointing, “Showing” (opening your hands), smiling and nodding. With repetition and patience, you may be able to develop a secondary language understood only by you, your child and other caregivers.
- Create a Comfortable Space for Your Child to Express Themselves
Your child needs to feel like they can communicate without guilt or fear. While this is challenging for many children on the autism spectrum, it’s far easier in a comforting, nurturing environment.
Designate a “communication room” in your family home. Adorn it simply and comfortably, with pleasing colours and soft surfaces. Include plenty of objects that appeal to your child, such as books and toys. Allow your child to spend time exploring this room on their own, and make sure you have their permission to engage with them while they are at play.
- Mirror Your Child’s Nonverbal Cues
However your child speaks, it’s up to you to determine how best to talk back. In many circumstances, that means mirroring your child’s nonverbal cues, such as facial expressions, eye movements, hand gestures and body posture. Show your child that you are their partner in communication, not a blank wall.
- Create and Craft With Your Child
Crafting is a great way to employ aided communication with your child—that is, communication that uses props and other tangible aids to get the point across. It’s also an effective means of eliciting positive responses and developing new interests in your child.
There’s no set formula to creativity-aided communication. Sometimes, the best strategy is simply to grab a stack of blank paper, some colorful pens and pencils and a few props to get your child’s creative juices flowing. Whilst children with ASD are quite literal in their interpretation of the world around them, art is nevertheless a powerful channel for the creative energies and serendipitous perceptions shared by all humans.
- Try New Experiences
Like crafts, new experiences can bring out a side of your child that you scarcely knew existed. If your child is able, consider public events such as musical performances, films or simple outdoor activities such as strolls in the park. Though such experiences can be over stimulating, each stimulative input presents a valuable opportunity for parent-child communication and child-parent expression.
- Try Sign Language
If nonverbal gestures aren’t enough to bridge the communication gap between you and your child, consider actual sign language. British Sign Language (BSL) is the nonverbal language of choice for nearly 150,000 individuals in the United Kingdom alone.
Though most regular users are deaf or very hard of hearing, BSL is an effective nonverbal communication tool for those without hearing problems—including nonverbal children with ASD. Some parents have reported amazing success with BSL and its North American counterpart, ASL. Give it a try—even if it fails to gain traction as your household’s de facto nonverbal communication method, you’ll learn a fun new skill with your child.
How are you connecting with your autistic child? What advice would you give to other parents who’ve struggled with the same issue?