Since one of the classic symptoms of autism is a marked deficit in verbal communication abilities, a common problem for applied behavior analysts and others who work with children and even adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder is simply being able to carry on a basic conversation. Something as simple as finding out what they want for lunch or whether or not they are happy or sad or indifferent about their current school assignment can be nearly impossible to find out if you rely on normal conversational methods.
But don’t let that stop you!
There are ways to have conversations with autistic kids and you can make them easier by keeping the following tips in mind.
DO Make the Effort to Talk To Them
Because talking to kids with autism can be difficult, many adults take the easy way out and just avoid including them in conversations in the first place. But that’s a mistake; both you and those children can benefit from attempts at conversation, even if they are not always successful.
There’s also a tendency to assume that if an autistic child doesn’t respond or shuts you down that they don’t like you or don’t want to talk. But that’s not always the case; that signal would be clear from a neurotypical individual but for someone with ASD, it’s just a part of the syndrome. Don’t take it personally, and don’t stop trying to gently involve autistic kids in your conversations. They probably want to engage, they just have more difficulty figuring out how.
Pick Your Moments
Not just any time is the right time to talk to an autistic child. Many of them have very particular schedules and rhythms to their behavior. If you interrupt them when they are deeply involved in something else, you’re not likely to get through and engage them as you had hoped to.
Similarly, it’s often not a good time to engage when the child is already wound up about something. Excessive stimuli can cause children with ASD to shut down. Wait for a calm and quiet moment if you want to have a conversation.
Talk About What They Want To Talk About
One approach that will never get you far with an autistic kid is to try to force the conversation in a direction you want it to go. At best you’ll get ignored; at worst, they’ll shut down or have an outburst.
Obsessions are part of the syndrome and an obsession means a lot of discussion about one particular thing. You might find it boring or simple but you’ll find far more engagement by sticking to the topic that the child wants to discuss.
Keep It To the Point
Stay away from allusions, metaphors, or any abstract statements. Autistic kids generally will not be able to interpret any kind of communication that relies on reading your internal emotional state or any kind of subtext.
Keep your sentences short and direct.
The pace of the conversation needs to be at a level the child can maintain. For most of us, processing sentences as we hear them is second nature and happens almost instantly. Autistic kids have to work to parse out what they hear, however. Give them the time they need to do it.
If Speaking Doesn’t Work, Try Writing!
If you get to sticking points in the conversation, try restating what you just said on paper. Draw a picture or write the words down and show them. ASD patients tend to think visually, so even if they don’t immediately understand what they just heard, they might get the same message if you put it on paper so they can see it.
Pay Attention To Non-Verbal Signals
Because autistic kids can have a lot of trouble manipulating language as well as understanding it, they often develop various types of behaviors that signal things that you might expect them to verbalize. Certain motions or actions they use while speaking might tell you more than the words they say if you pay attention and learn to interpret them.
Remember They Are Just Kids!
Autistic kids may not act a lot like neurotypical children, but remember you’re still talking to someone whose thoughts and attitudes are being formed in an immature brain.
With a little practice, you may find that you can talk to autistic kids just as easily as any kid. The results, for both you and the child, can be both positive in terms of their development of communication skills and enjoyable as you make an interpersonal connection.