If you have a child on the autism spectrum, you might find yourself wondering how to effectively improve their communication and life skills. While early intervention is the key in treating autism, a condition that affects one in 68 children in the U.S., it’s hard to prepare yourself for what’s to come if you’re unsure on how best to help them.
Described as a “developmental disability” by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, autism causes substantial social, communication, and behavioral challenges, and is 4.5 times more common in boys than girls. But since the condition varies from person to person, it can be hard to get the “right” advice and relief. Thankfully, there are tried and tested tips to help make life easier thanks to support groups across the country.
One group shining bright in the community is the Asperger Autism Group of Goshen led by co-founder Christine Guth, that lends support to parents and their children on the autism spectrum to thrive. As one of the leaders of the local autism parent support group for more than 10 years, Guth’s experience and insight comes from being a mother to two children diagnosed on the autism spectrum, as well as being the wife to her husband also on the spectrum.
With a large, sociable team whose objective is to support families and share practical information for parents and children on the spectrum to prosper through this condition, Guth shares tips with Womanista to help make life a bit easier at home.
Keep a consistent schedule
Since people on the autism spectrum typically take great comfort in predictability, keeping an expected schedule or pattern of family life is one method to help smooth difficulties at home.
“Children on the autism spectrum usually have strong — and often unpleasant — ways of letting you know that unpredictability is highly disturbing,” Guth says. “[However], attachment to routine can be taken too far, with the child becoming a tyrant in his little kingdom, unable to handle even the slightest change to schedule or routine.”
Because of this, Guth suggests parents find a middle ground where they have enough stability in the family’s routine to keep peace, and enough variation to gradually introduce their child to the skills they will need to adapt to change. Additionally, Guth recommends keeping visual schedules so children know what’s coming next, even if changes are inevitable.
Always keep it visual
According to a report from Indiana University, researchers suggest visual schedules for those with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) are efficient tools that can increase your child’s skills and independent functioning, while decreasing anxiety or difficult behaviors. Guth too believes visual aids are an important part of living with a child on the autism spectrum as she says most are “visual learners.”
“Finding ways to communicate visually rather than repeating a lot of words is often more effective,” she says. “Do an online image search for ‘visual supports’ to get ideas about how to use visual supports in the home to support daily routines.”
Recognize all behavior as communication
Whether good or bad, pay attention to your child’s gestures, expressions and behaviors as a form of communication.
“If your child does not have the ability to use words to communicate effectively, [they] will express needs in less desirable ways,” Guth says. “Rather than seeing these as bad behavior to be punished or eliminated, try viewing them as your child’s means of communication.”
Your understanding of their communication style will go a long way in helping your family work as a team. Guth goes on to share how it’s essential to teach alternate methods of expression within your child’s grasp by using visual supports; then, reward them for their efforts in using them.
Pay attention to sensory differences
Many children with autism are hypersensitive to light, sounds, touch, and tastes due to neurological differences.
“If a child has strong negative responses to certain forms of sensory input, recognize that these are in response to things that truly cause the child pain or discomfort,” she says. “It does not help to tell a child to ‘get over it’ — if he could get over it himself, he would have done so already.”
Guth encourages parents to think of ways to modify the environment to result in fewer sensory experiences your child finds difficult, and teach your child what they can do for themselves, like wearing a hat when the light is too bright or using earplugs for loud sounds.
Set aside your own embarrassment
As parents, we tend to become fixated on what others think of our parenting skills, but Guth says to set aside those expectations and just focus on your child. If we concentrate on impressing those around us with how we parent, Guth says we tend to lose sight of what our child would truly need.
“Don’t let shame or embarrassment about your child’s behaviors outside the home push you into being disrespectful to your child,” Guth says. “A child with autism is definitely going to behave in unexpected ways at times, and we might as well get used to it.”
Take an interest in their interests
Some children on the autism spectrum prefer being alone, while others want to very much interact but don’t know how to hold a conversation or play with peers. Guth shares that for either kind of child, develop a relationship based on embracing their interest as your own.
“Get down on the floor, if that is where he is, and play with those things that capture the child’s interest,” she says. “Watch to see what catches his attention, and build on it.”
She goes on to share that it’s important to offer possibilities for play, but don’t force your ways of doing things on the child unless it’s essential for safety. When your child begins to see you doing things that interest him, he too will grow to enjoy and respond to your presence.
“Be patient, but persistent and a relationship will develop that you both can enjoy,” Guth says.