As your child settles into the school year, as a parent you hope not only that they'll do well in class, but also that they'll get along well with others and fit in. But imagine if you were the parent of a child with a disability that may not be immediately recognizable. You'd want people to understand and be kind.
Children with autism often attend mainstream schools, but it might be difficult to identify them by sight. You might notice they communicate differently or act differently and wonder how to interact with them and include them.
"Just because children with autism communicate differently doesn't mean they should be ignored," says speech-language pathologist Erin McQuivey, MS, CCC-SLP, who works with children with autism as a manager at Primary Children's Outpatient Rehabilitation at Intermountain Riverton Hospital in Riverton, Utah.
"Children with autism can communicate in a lot of different ways. They may use words, facial expressions, gestures, emotions, and even assistive technology," she adds. "We should honor all these methods as meaningful communication. It's their way to build relationships, make requests, and comment. We should recognize the communication methods they're comfortable with."
What are autism spectrum disorders?
Autism spectrum disorders are developmental disorders that affect how children interact and communicate with others. They're called a spectrum because of the wide range of types, symptoms, and severity of autism, which also includes Asperger's syndrome. One out of every 59 children in the U.S. has an autism spectrum disorder and the numbers are increasing, according to a 2014 study by the Centers for Disease Control, and it's more common in boys. Autism has no cure, but early intervention and therapy can make a big difference.
Common signs of autism spectrum disorders:
- Difficulty socializing with others, responding to social cues, and understanding feelings
- Difficulty communicating, including speaking and understanding
- Unusual reactions to the way things sound, smell, taste, look, or feel
- Avoiding or resisting physical contact
- Discomfort when regular routines are disrupted
- Repetitive physical behaviors
"It's important for parents to help their child understand there are children who are different than they are. Parents can teach their child some simple tools and tips for communicating with children with autism," says McQuivey.
Six tips for interacting positively with children with autism spectrum disorders:
- Be patient. Children with autism may need more time to process information.
- Be kind and flexible. They're often less able to adapt to new situations.
- Use gestures or other ways to communicate besides words.
- Learn how to show interest and affection in ways they like.
- Use positive reinforcement. Praise or reward good behavior.
- Don't take things personally if their responses are blunt.
Jodi Clark, who's the mother of five children, including eight-year old Caleb, who has autism, says, "I hope people won't assume my son isn't smart and expect less of him. I want people to reach out and give him individual attention, but also to encourage him to integrate with others."
How do speech therapists help children with autism spectrum disorders?
Speech language pathologists can help children with autism improve social and communication skills. They teach them how to get along with others, understand and use gestures and other alternative forms of communication, follow directions, and ask and answer questions.
They can also help with feeding problems and sensory issues with food, if children don't like how food feels, looks, tastes, or smells.
They also teach parents how to help their child with autism better navigate the world. They provide guidance for parents to advocate for their child's needs at school.