Interacting with a Child Who Has Autism Spectrum Disorder

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a developmental disorder that affects how children interact and communicate. The disorder is called a spectrum disorder because children can fall anywhere on the autism spectrum.

Children with an ASD begin to show symptoms of the condition at an early age, and the symptoms continue throughout childhood and adulthood. Doctors do not know why some children get an ASD. It may be a combination of genes they are born with and something in their environment that triggers those genes.

Children with an ASD have trouble relating to other people. They have difficulty making eye contact, often withdraw into themselves, and may seem uninterested in relating to family members.

On the other hand, some children with ASD may love talking at length with family members, friends, and even strangers about a subject they are obsessed with. The problem is that they may talk about it too long or to the exclusion of everything else and alienate their listeners.

If you are a parent or grandparent of a child with an ASD, it can be heartbreaking if you feel like you just can't connect with him or her. But learning more about these disorders and what has helped others should help you and your relationship.

Breaking through the barriers of ASD

Although ASD has no cure, there is hope through treatment. Many children are able to learn to communicate and interact. Doctors and mental health experts have learned a lot about how to break through to these children.

Here are some things we know about children with an ASD:

  • They may not be able to read your nonverbal communications. They may not react to your smile or frown.

  • They take things literally. You need to be careful to say exactly what you mean. If you hurry the child by saying "Step on it!," don't be surprised if he or she asks what to step on.

  • They may only be able to grasp one thought or idea at a time. You need to keep conversations focused and simple.

  • They may want to talk about only the one thing they are really interested in at a given time.

Communication and interaction tips for ASD

There are no hard-and-fast rules on how to communicate with an ASD child, but many family members of a child with ASD have had success with these tips:

  • Be patient. It often takes a child with an ASD longer to process information, so you may need to slow down your conversation to his or her speed.

  • Teach the child how to express anger without being too aggressive. Children with an ASD should know that they don't have to hold their anger and frustration inside.

  • Be persistent yet resilient. Don't let your feelings get hurt if the child does not respond to you as you'd like. ASD children may have trouble both showing and controlling their emotions and can be blunt in their responses—don't take this personally.

  • Always stay positive. Children with an ASD respond best to positive reinforcement, so be sure to mention or reward good behavior.

  • Ignore irritating attention-getting behavior. ASD children may act badly at times to get you to focus on them. Ignoring this behavior is often the best way to prevent it.

  • Interact through physical activity. ASD children tend to have short attention spans, especially when it comes to communicating. Running around and playing outside may be a better way of sharing time together. It will also allow them to relax and feel calmer.

  • Be affectionate. Children with an ASD often need a hug, just like other children.

  • Show your love and interest. Children with an ASD may have trouble showing their feelings, but they still need to know that you love them. Go out of your way to express your interest, caring, and support.

Interacting with your ASD child or grandchild can be challenging, but it is one of the most important things you can do to help them learn. Research shows that early, frequent, and loving intervention from family members is one of the best ways to help children with an ASD.