Posted on Wednesday, 29 April 2020,
Understanding spoken language, making sense of, sometimes, complex sentence structure, reading body language, and translating tone of voice can all cause problems for autistic children and young people . However, there are many straightforward, practical things parents and teachers can do right away to better support their children and those they work or interact with.
Some autistic children are not especially interested in language or in listening to people unless they are talking about something of significant interest to them. This means that in a classroom, a child may not always tune into what the teacher is saying, and important information can be missed or misunderstood. One potential solution is to give the child clear, audible cues, such as using their name and saying, “You need to be listening now.”
Dr Christine Cull, a clinical psychologist who specialises in autism, says that we need to think about different ways of engaging children:
“You want to ensure that children understand what’s being communicated without having to rely solely on language and listening. The spoken word is transitory, so the meaning can easily be missed. Making sure that information is clearly written down or available in other visual formats, such as drawings, means it can be checked and rechecked over time. This is something that is useful for many young people’s learning; strategies that help autistic children actually help everybody.”
Repeating instruction isn’t always the best way of ensuring the child understands what is required of them. Many autistic children are involved in endless discussions about the need to pay attention, or change other aspects of their behaviour, and yet it has no sustained impact on the way they behave.
According to Dr Cull, this often comes down to careful choice of phrasing. “If what is said and what is meant are different, the child can miss that completely. I remember one parent asked their child to pick the outside bin up because it had blown over in the wind. When the child didn’t return, they were found outside, standing still, holding the bin.” The language used by the parents was too specific. Because the child hadn’t been asked to go out, put the bin straight and then return, they interpreted the task literally.
Many parents will recognise a situation in which a child struggles to engage in a two-way conversation, yet can talk at length about their special interest. The intensity (and sometimes volume) of these monologues can be challenging. Rae Britton, the mother of an autistic teen, suggests harnessing this special interest to help them to learn. “You’ll be surprised how often you can explain a new concept by relating it specifically to something they’re interested in. You might not get it right immediately, but rest assured they’ll let you know that! The important thing is getting them engaged with the subject and learning.” Using their particular interest as a context for explaining new ideas can be surprisingly effective.
The challenges of helping a child with a social communication difficulties bring its own frustrations for parents. “When my son was little, I remember thinking: why doesn’t he understand?” says Rae Britton. “I was annoyed with myself - why aren’t I communicating this properly?” Remember that, as with many aspects of autism, this isn’t an issue that can be instantly solved. All you can do is to continue to put consistent autism friendly support in place that best serves their needs.
The examples described within this article, and the following pieces give examples of approaches that can help to reduce the impact of autism specific impairments. It is not a fully comprehensive directory of all available interventions, and some of the suggestions may not be appropriate for all children.
At Clinical Partners our specialist clinicians have years of experience supporting autistic children and adults . To find out more about what’s available, visit our autism hub, listen to the latest podcast in our autism masterclass series for parents or call the team on 0203 326 9160.