Posted On: January 10, 2014 by Patrick A. Malone

Having a Conversation with a Child with Autism

Many people feel awkward around someone who is different — in color, gender, nationality or physical/mental ability. It’s part of the human condition, but so is compassion and understanding. Kathleeen O’Grady, a research associate at Concordia University in Montreal and the mother of a son with autism, helps to expand our humanity with advice on how to communicate with a youngster who has autism.

Writing on, O’Grady notes that an estimated 1 in 88 children is diagnosed with autism, a neurological disorder often characterized by difficulty with social interaction. That can make holding a conversation challenging, but it doesn’t mean you should leave kids with autism out of one.

“Contrary to popular belief,” O’Grady writes, “most kids with autism are not anti-social. Yet, many “neurotypicals” still struggle when it comes to including a child with autism in the conversation. Those that do try, often fail because they don’t know a few essential rules that can help make the interaction possible.”

Here are O’Grady’s three rules for communicating with a kid who has autism.

1. Don’t start the conversation with a question.

Even a simple question like, “How are you?” or “What’s your favorite color?” can seem like a test to some children with autism. And if they fail the first question, the conversation is over before it starts.

These kids generally know what you are saying or how to answer, but sometimes their answer sometimes gets “trapped” between the thought and the expression of it. Any environmental change or interference — background noise, pace of speech, accent or their own anxiety when exposed to new places and people — can make the answer to even a simple question enormously difficult.

So start a conversation with a statement they can build on: “I love your shirt;” or “Cool dinosaurs” are observations that invite a child to comment in kind if he or she wants to. Then you can build on it, conversationally.

2. Be patient.

Usually, kids with autism don’t need you to speak slowly, but they do need time to form a response. “Too often,” O’Grady writes, “I’ve seen adults wait for a child’s response to a question, and when the response doesn’t come, immediately throw another question out there in hopes that the child will respond to the second attempt.

“If they’d simply waited another 20 or so seconds, they may have had a response to their first query.” But throw out another, and the child might get confused and freeze up trying to figure out if they should respond to the first or second query.

Just wait. And just when you think you’ve waited long enough, count out five more seconds in your head, and wait again. Each child has his or her own response time, so it may take a few tries to figure out how long they need.

3. Don’t take it personally, and try again later.

Some adults try and fail to engage children with autism. They presume that the child doesn’t like them or is anti-social generally. Neither is likely to be the case.

Kids on the autism spectrum sometimes just don’t respond to social communication — even when they are fully able, and even when they understand what’s going on.

Maybe the child is imagining something terrific in his or her head — a video game, a piece of music — that is so powerful that he or she can’t be pulled out of the imaginary world and into yours at that moment. In other words, you can’t compete.

Sometimes the environment is overwhelming, and makes the child too anxious or overloaded with sensory stimuli to respond. Sometimes, a kid just doesn’t feel like talking.

It’s not personal. Try again to convince him or her that joining your conversation is worth the effort. If there’s still no response, the mood will pass. Try again later.

The bottom line, O’Grady says, is that you should never leave a child with autism out of the conversation. “Chances are,” she says, “they want to engage, but they need to do so on their terms and within their abilities. Make the effort, and not only will you make a child happy, it’ll make your day too.”

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