A study by Raising Children Network Australia found that Communication skills are important for all children. These skills help children express their needs and wants. When children can do this, it helps them with behaviour, learning and socialising.
Autistic children have a range of communication skills and abilities. Some autistic children have very good communication skills, whereas others find it harder to relate to and communicate with other people. Also, some autistic children have difficulties developing language, find it difficult to understand or use spoken language, or have no language at all.
Autistic children often need support to learn and practice skills for communicating with other people.
How autistic children communicate
Autistic children sometimes communicate differently from typically developing children. They might:
- use language differently
- use non-verbal communication
- communicate through behaviour.
Use of language
Autistic children might use:
- mimic or repeat other people’s words or phrases, or words they’ve heard on TV, YouTube or videos. They repeat these words without meaning or in an unusual tone of voice.
- use made-up words
- say the same word over and over
- confuse pronouns, referring to themselves as ‘you’ and the person they’re talking to as ‘I’.
When autistic children use language in these ways, they might be trying to communicate. But it can be hard for other people to understand what children are trying to say.
For example, children with echolalia might learn to talk by repeating phrases they associate with situations or emotional states, learning the meanings of these phrases by finding out how they work. A child might say ‘Do you want a lollipop?’ when they actually want one themselves. This is because when they’ve heard that question before, they’ve got a lollipop.
Over time, many autistic children can build on these beginnings and learn to use language in more typical ways.
Nonverbal communication Autistic children might use:
- physically manipulate a person or object – for example, a child might take a person’s hand and push it towards something they want
- point, show and shift gaze – for example, a child might look at or point to something they want and then shift their gaze to another person, letting that person know they want the object
- use objects – for example, a child might hand an object to another person to communicate
Here are some ways you can encourage communication with your child:
- Use short sentences – for example, ‘Shirt on. Hat on’.
- Use less mature language – for example, ‘Playdough is yucky in your mouth’.
- Exaggerate your tone of voice – for example, ‘Ouch, that water is VERY hot’.
- Encourage and prompt your child to fill the gap when it’s your child’s turn in a conversation – for example, ‘Look at that dog. What colour is the dog?’
- Ask questions that need a reply from your child – for example, ‘Do you want a sausage?’ If you know your child’s answer is yes, you can teach your child to nod their head in reply by modelling this for your child.
- Give your child enough time to understand and respond to questions.
- Practice communicating with your child on topics or things they’re interested in.
- How to address the negative behaviour of autistic children
Marcus Autism Centre suggests that children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) can present problem behaviors in many forms. Your child may show:
- Aggression (hitting, scratching or biting others)
- Self-harm (hitting or biting self)
- Destruction (throwing or breaking objects)
- Pica (eating inedible objects)
- Elopement (running away or wandering off)
These behaviors may be challenging for you and can prevent your child from reaching his full potential. Having a child who engages in problem behavior can make daily tasks such as getting dressed, eating meals or going to the store difficult—or even impossible.
While these behaviors can seem overwhelming, you don’t have to deal with them alone. You can get effective help to improve your child’s behavior.
Discipline strategies for autistic children and teenagers
The following discipline strategies can guide all children towards appropriate behaviour and away from inappropriate behaviour:
- praise and rewards for appropriate behaviour
- clear rules about behaviour
- positive consequences for appropriate behaviour
- negative consequences for inappropriate behaviour
- every day and social skills for handling unfamiliar or difficult situations.
These discipline strategies are explained below, along with some ways that you can adapt them to your autistic child’s development and understanding.
Praise is when you tell your child what you like about their behaviour. When your child gets praise for behaving well, your child is likely to want to keep behaving well.
Descriptive praise is when you tell your child exactly what it is that you’re praising. Descriptive praise is best for encouraging good behaviour – for example, ‘Thank you for staying calm when you didn’t win the game’.
Many autistic children like praise and want to behave well to get more praise. But some autistic children don’t respond to praise. If your child tends to withdraw from other people, your child might not be motivated to do things to please others. Or if your child has limited language, your child might not understand the positive words you’re using.
Clear rules about behaviour
Rules are positive statements that let children know how they’re expected to behave and what your family limits are.
The rule might be that your child can’t play in the morning until they’re ready for school – for example, ‘First get ready, then have playtime’. You could use a visual support like a timer to show your child how long there is until you need to leave for school. When your child has finished getting ready, they can play for the time left on the timer. If the timer has finished, there’s no time to play.
Positive and negative consequences for behaviour
A consequence is something that happens after your child behaves in a particular way. Consequences can be:
- positive – for example, your child gets more time at the park if they get ready to leave the house
- negative – for example, the toy is put away for 10 minutes if your child is throwing it.
You can use both positive and negative consequences to guide your child’s behaviour. But it’s always best to focus more on giving your child positive attention for behaving in ways that you like. This usually means you’ll need to use negative consequences less.
Quiet time and time-out are useful consequences. Both involve taking your child away from interesting activities and not giving them attention for a short period of time.
Time-out might not work if your child tends to be withdrawn. It could end up being a reward rather than a negative consequence if it gives your child time alone.
Every day and social skills for unfamiliar and difficult situations
Sometimes autistic children and teenagers might seem like they’re behaving inappropriately. But actually they don’t have the skills to handle unfamiliar or difficult situations.
Teach Self-Calming Techniques: According to By Amy Morin, LCSW Meltdowns are common in kids, but it can be harder to calm a child with autism. Some children with autism can learn self-calming techniques for when they start to feel out of control of themselves or a situations.
One simple self-calming technique they can try is to breathe in and out through their nose slowly while closing their eyes and imagining something pleasant, like their kitty or their favorite park. If you or another trusted adult is around, they can hug the adult until they’re settled. Gentle, steady pressure, like from a hug, is calming for many children with autism.
Control Their Environment: For children with autism especially, it’s helpful to make their immediate environment conducive to their comfort. Taking care to fill their play area or room with preferred toys and objects can make them feel more safe and comfortable, which may lead to more regulated behavior.
Conversely, try to avoid situations that you know can trigger their agitation—for some kids with autism, for example, it can be crowded or noisy places—and be on the lookout for signs of pending frustration. Sometimes, kids with autism can be compulsive about certain toys or activities and that can interfere with basic routines. These distractions can be removed when tasks need to be completed.
By Kananelo Makoetlane