Right from the Start
Karin Donahue, Ph.D.,
With the rates of autism continuing to rise, it’s more and more likely that you will meet a child with autism: at the grocery store, on a bus, at a playground, or at a social gathering. These children have many strengths such as being honest, seeing things in new ways, and seeking to help others. But they also frequently struggle to manage their behavior and emotions. In situations when an autistic child is overwhelmed, adults, too, can feel overwhelmed and wonder what to do. There are certain strategies that really help kids with autism, and below I offer strategies you can try. These techniques are labeled with quotations made by those with autism, who can best articulate the supports they need.
Strategy #1 - “It’s comforting to be in control.”
Give children opportunities to feel in control. Help them make choices. Children feel empowered in a situation when they are allowed to choose what to do. For example, if a child needs to move away from a situation, ask him if he wants to go sit over here, or walk over there, instead of insisting that the child do one specific thing. When a child is feeling overwhelmed, being ordered to do something feels even more distressing. But when we encourage a child to make a choice, his anxiety level decreases as he feels more in control.
Strategy #2 - “I like to know what’s happening.”
Predictability is reassuring. Most people do not enjoy when their plans are derailed because something unexpected has been sprung on them at the last minute. Children with autism are especially sensitive to unpredictability. They feel secure when they know what is happening and what to expect. Having a clear sense of what’s to come helps reduce their stress levels and increase their calm behavior. Be sure to preview new activities, telling children about what is going to take place, who will be there, and how long the event will take. For example, if a child is going to grandma’s for her 80th birthday, discuss ahead of time where the party is, who’s coming, what the child can do to have fun, how long you’ll stay, and what is appropriate behavior for the party. This helps the child understand the expectations for the party and how to behave. In order to increase predictability and promote a child’s confidence, you can practice for new situations ahead of time. In the example above, role play with the child so she can know what to say to family members, or practice games she can play at the party.
Strategy #3 - “People can be fun too.”
Show interest in what a child is doing and join them. If they are playing with trains on the floor, get down on the floor with them and ask them about their trains. If the child is drawing Disney characters, ask them about their favorite character. Participate in what the child is doing. Even if their interests seem rigid or repetitive, join them. This is how we begin to establish a relationship with a child who has autism. So frequently, they feel isolated and left out. When we join the child and express interest in the things that captivate them, they don’t feel so alone, and they begin to learn ways to connect with others and take joy in shared experiences. They see that people can be fun too, not just objects.
Strategy #4 - “I’ll follow you.”
Children with autism frequently find it hard to play and engage with others given the unstructured and dynamic nature of social interaction. We can be great role models to help them learn how to have reciprocal conversations, how to enjoy pretend play, and how to make friends. If the child is playing with toy cars on the floor, repetitively moving them back and forth, we can model cars racing or crashing. For the child who is uncertain how to join a group of peers, we can lead the way by saying, “Hey guys, can we play?” For the child dressing a doll, we can show how to pretend the doll can talk. They may feel uncomfortable and intimidated in social situations, but they can learn quickly if we encourage them to follow our lead and join us in games and activities.
Strategy #5 - “I can tell you how I feel.”
The world of feelings can be quite perplexing for children with autism. We can help these children sort out confusing feelings by describing different feelings. We can incorporate this into play by saying something like, “Wow, Superman seems really mad that Robin didn’t show up. His fists are balled up and he looks all red in the face.” We can help children learn how to cope with strong feelings through play also. For example, we can say, “Maybe Superman should tell Robin that he’s mad.” We can also validate feelings to let children know it’s okay to have the feelings they have. For example, we can add, “I can understand Superman would be mad. I’d be mad too if my friend didn’t show up.” There are many ways we can help children identify how they feel, learn how to express their feelings, and know that their feelings are valid.
For more information on practical strategies to help children with autism, read Right from the Start - A Practical Guide for Helping Young Children with Autism by Karin Donahue and Kate Crassons. This book is easy to read and provides essential information on helping children with autism learn self-regulation (managing emotions and behavior), social skills, and play skills, both at home and at school.
Karin Donahue, Ph.D. is assistant professor of psychology at Northampton Community College in Bethlehem, PA. She is also a behavior specialist consultant specializing in autism and has more than thirty years of clinical experience working with children and their families.