8 tips for communicating with autistic kids

Verbally communicating with autistic kids is something that parents, teachers, therapists, and other adults need to do. But what are effective strategies to support communication? You could use non-verbal supports like whiteboards or pictures, or talk through toys so communication isn’t so direct. Repetition, simple and clear speech and keeping it short can also help with effective communication with autistic kids.

One psychiatrist in this study on communication strategies talks about the importance of having multiple strategies and approaches, saying:

” … They don’t always present the same in everybody but I think that is key to understand that and then to understand that individual because everybody is different and I think you can’t have a blanket way of treating everybody with autism’.”

So here’s 8 tips for successful communicating with autistic kids.

Non-verbal supports

Children with autism may experience sensory overload when being talked at. They might need longer processing times, or struggle with anxiety, shyness or high emotions such that they can’t find the words to describe what they are feeling. Finding non-verbal ways of communicating can help reduce the cognitive load.

  1. Use a whiteboard
    If a child doesn’t want to use their words, they might be able to draw a picture or write a few words on a whiteboard. They might have an experience that’s embarrassing, anxiety-inducing, or just strong emotions (anger, sadness) that makes using words difficult for them. But drawing the scenario might work better. This works well for our daughter, who feels strong emotions about situations and can’t talk about them because she’s embarrassed.
  2. Pictures and pointing
    If an autistic child doesn’t know the words, or can’t verbalise in the moment, they might be able to point at pictures or words.
    This could be used for identifying feelings (either writing words on a page, or using emojis to show emotions, or photo cards that show people’s emotions) or states like hungry, tired, thirsty, angry. This works well for our son, who often is feeling discomfort but doesn’t have the interoception to know what his body is telling him.
  3. Dual-code and give time
    Using both verbal cues and non-verbal supports e.g. a picture of the word you just said, can help with attentiveness and understanding when communicating. Don’t forget to wait and give time for processing and a response – don’t keep talking or pointing when time to think and understand is actually needed before a response.

Change the way you talk

  1. Change the perspective – talk through toys
    Sometimes, asking a toy about the child, or asking the toy to respond how it thinks the child is, can provide enough distance from a different perspective. Asking things like “so teddy, do you think that made them feel sad?” or “teddy, do you know what happened next?”. The toy might be able to respond with the child’s voice, or the child might just nod yes or no to indicate responses.
  2. Keep it short (less is more)
    Long, ongoing dialogues can be overwhelming and lead to lack of attentiveness. Avoid the lecture and keep it short. When giving instructions or reminders, a single word might do (“shoes” instead of “put your shoes on now please”) to reduce cognitive overload.
  3. Be literal
    Autistic children often struggle to understand idioms and sarcasm, interpreting things said literally. So, rather than say “you’re driving me up the wall” or “could you be a little louder (sarcasm)?”, be direct and literal. “I’m feeling annoyed because you aren’t following my instructions.” or “talk in a whisper now”.
  4. Avoid eye contact and keep hands busy
    Giving and maintaining eye contact is tricky for many autistic kids. It’s uncomfortable and awkward, and being ‘forced’ to give eye contact is confronting and unnecessary. Try doing activities together such as play, walking, driving, drawing together, or doing sensory craft together. Side-by-side activities that keep the hands (or legs) busy can provide some sensory input and fidgeting, without confronting eye contact. This can support tricky conversations by reducing the pressure and making the conversation feel more informal.
  5. Repeat and clarify
    There are times when repeating what you’ve said is necessary. Maybe they weren’t attentive the first time, or maybe they forgot in the time it took to process. Repeat without changing what you’ve said. You may also need to paraphrase or repeat back what they’ve said to clarify that that’s what they meant.

What generally doesn’t work in communicating with autistic kids

Generally speaking, the following doesn’t work well in communicating with autistic kids.

  1. Using complex language, lots of sarcasm, expressions, idioms or other non-literal language. It may be confusing and just not make sense.
  2. Yelling, being aggressive, or really loud and demanding. This is scary, contributes to sensory overload, and feeling like there’s no escape or options.
  3. Backing kids into a corner. Using body language to ‘back kids into a corner’ is threatening, and can trigger meltdowns which just makes the situation worse.

Summary: communicating with autistic kids

Be kind, gentle and compassionate. Be patient, not rushed, and find creative ways to communicate in non threatening ways.

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