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How to Encourage an Autistic Child
Encouraging a Happy and Positive OutlookEncouraging Good, Successful WorkEncouraging Success in SchoolAsk a QuestionRelated ArticlesReferences
This article was co-authored by Laura Marusinec, MD. Dr. Marusinec is a Board Certified Pediatrician at the Children's Hospital of Wisconsin, where she is on the Clinical Practice Council. She received her M.D. from the Medical College of Wisconsin School of Medicine in 1995 and completed her residency at the Medical College of Wisconsin in Pediatrics in 1998. She is a member of the American Medical Writers Association and the Society for Pediatric Urgent Care.
There are 17 references cited in this article, which can be found at the bottom of the page.
Autistic children need positive encouragement, just like other children. They may, however, need a slightly more specialized or personal touch in order to bring out their best selves. If you are patient, loving, and thoughtful, you'll find that encouraging an autistic child will be rewarding for both of you.
1Encouraging a Happy and Positive Outlook
1Help kids find autistic role models. One thing that discourages autistic children is the fear that they are somehow "inferior" to neurotypical people. This couldn't be further from the truth. Helping them realize the incredible successes of other autistic people can help give them drive, initiative, and confidence to succeed:
- Daniel Tammet is a writer and linguist known as one of the smartest men alive. He's appeared on TV shows everywhere as well as documentaries.
- Satoshi Tajiri, the creator of the world-famous Pokémon franchise, is autistic. He still runs many of the game's creative decisions.
- Donna Williams is an international bestselling author and sculptor. She still writes and creates art based on her experiences with autism.
2Build support networks of other children, either online or in person. A big part of autism acceptance is realizing you are not alone, and kids need social communities that they feel a part of. Use sites like the Autism Self-Advocacy Network, which have state-by-state databases of resources.
- Because of shyness or social difficulty, many autistic children feel happier communicating online. This is a good way to build social skills in a safe, comfortable setting. Of course, you should still monitor your child's online activity to make sure they are safe.
- Look for friends, family members, and teachers who "get" your child. That is, those that treat him with the respect and love every child deserves.
3Encourage self-expression in whatever form the child enjoys. Autistic people may be shy or have difficulty expressing themselves with words, but that doesn't mean they don't want to get things off their chests. If your child struggles to speak or express themselves, encourage alternate methods like drawing, music, writing, or crafts. Don't ask to see everything, either. They will share it with you if they'd like you to see it.
- If you're unsure what they like to do, just ask. Try your best not to offer solutions or force your own ideas. Just listen to your child.
- "We have the afternoon off -- how would you like to spend it?"
4Find ways to highlight their strengths around the house. In order to encourage success, a kid needs to feel successful, so find ways to allow him or her to truly shine. Instead of assigning chores, offer four or five different ones and see which ones they prefer. Try saying something like, "We need to clean up, what do you think you can get done for us?"
- Don't get upset if things aren't done quite to your liking -- anger will only cause anxiety that will make future successes even more difficult.
- Be specific with instructions for the best results. Don't just say "pick up pinecones." Tell them to pick them up, put them in the trash can, and return the can to the garage.
5Don't force neurotypical, or "normal," behavior on a child. Some children struggle with two senses at once, such as looking and listening, and thus avoid eye contact when being told something. They aren't ignoring you by looking away -- they are actually paying close attention. Autistic children find novel ways to cope with people who think differently from them, and you should extend this same courtesy to them as well. To help do so:
- Focus on outcomes, not on the current moment. A child may have a different way of doing things, but what matters more is if they get the things done.
- Pay attention to moments when they are comfortable or at ease. How can you replicate these scenarios more often?
6Stay positive and optimistic to help the child remain positive and optimistic. Do not neglect your own well-being in an effort to make things perfect for an autistic child. It can be hard raising or teaching a kid on the autism spectrum, and you need to acknowledge that difficulty in order to overcome it. There are lots of resources and support communities where you can share your concerns, find solutions, and listen to stories from those in similar positions:
2Encouraging Good, Successful Work
1Take an honest appraisal of strengths and weaknesses. All children need to be guided into areas where they can succeed in order to feel proud and productive. Each kid is different, but you can find areas where the succeed easily-- what do they love to do? where have they impressed you? what things are they personally proud of?
- If a child is good at math and numbers, but struggles with English and writing, can you bridge the gap with non-fiction? Find books that speak to their interests to make reading easier.
- How can you lessen the burden of difficult areas? For example, say a kid loves to run and explore outside but struggles with densely packed areas? Can you go hiking instead of to the community playground?
2Use regular scheduling to keep kids on track. Autistic children, in general, react well to set schedules. When determining homework time, relaxation, and meals or snack breaks, a routine will benefit both you and the child. If the child is old enough, provide a watch and physical copy of the schedule, which gives them concrete windows of time to work through.
- Visual schedules, like those with pictures attached or apps like First-Then Visual Schedule, are often helpful.
- Announce changes of schedule 5 to 10 minutes before they happen, especially early on. Don't spring changes suddenly on the child.
- Missing times or breaking the routine without warning can cause anxiety.
3Celebrate success and triumphs, especially in difficult areas. Positive reinforcement is key for all children, and those on the spectrum are no different. While you don't need to throw a party for every success, you should take note and praise children for their accomplishments. This is especially important when a child does something that they struggle with, such as sitting through a long, arduous test or giving a presentation to the class.
- "That didn't look easy, but you did an amazing job!"
- "I know you don't prefer to do that, but I'm very proud of you for doing it anyway!"
- A kid may struggle to speak in front of people and lose track of their ideas when talking. But you can celebrate the courage needed to stand up and talk in the first place.
4Build a support network the child trusts. Having people that they can depend on will help bring out their best selves and protect them from outbursts or issues. This team starts at home, and parents and siblings should research or read books on autism and supporting autistic family members. But the team should grow beyond the home, considering people like:
- School principals and guidance counselors
- Speech pathologists
- Physical/occupational therapists
- Autism specialists
- Dedicated aides or teaching assistants.
5Remember that autism is not a disease, but a way of being. A lot of the struggle with autism comes from believing that something is "wrong." But autistic children see the world differently, not defectively. Learning to cope with these differences is key to helping encourage children to be the best they can be. By eliminating the "disease" from the equation you prevent kids from feeling broken or sick, making them feel more capable of success.
- Even a simple "we're very proud of you for _____," or "you did a great job on that!" will go a long way.
- Try not to excuse or apologize for a child's behavior. Even if people don't quite understand what's happening, don't put a child down to make others feel better. Instead of "that was bad!" aim for "how can we do that differently next time?"
3Encouraging Success in School
1Discuss a child's needs with the school immediately instead of waiting. Schools in the US and across the world must offer children with disadvantages an Individualized Education Program, or IEP, to help them succeed in school. The sooner you start this conversation, the easier it will be to implement, getting your child the specific help and attention that they need.
- Talk to the school's guidance counselors as soon as signs of autism occur. Many experts recommend IEPs as early as age three.
2Allow "sensory breaks" during tests or stressful situations. You might let the child walk outside for a few minutes, allow some coloring or play time, or simply let them sit and relax. Simply give them a few moments to regain composure, as the myriad stresses and stimulations of a class can cause sensory overload. These breaks help them relieve some of that tension.
- "You seem stressed, let's take a break and come back."
- "Time to stretch! Let's relax for 5 minutes before starting again."
3Use visual aids for schedules, teaching, and assignments. Do not rely purely on talking or writing to help get the point across. Autistic children often react well to visual aids, so use pictures along with speech to include them in activities and materials. This could include pictographs, such as using a picture of a sandwich instead of the word "lunch," or using more visual aids like photographs and videos during lessons.
- For very young kids, consider picture cards, with pictures like a toilet, food, or crayons that you can show to them when words don't work.
- All kids have different learning styles. Some prefer to read, others to listen, and others like direct interaction. By trying to use two to three different styles at once (i.e. visual aids while lecturing, videos followed by discussion, etc.) you can reach kids of all learning abilities and styles.
4Be flexible with problem areas and assignments. An autistic child may never feel comfortable leading a group project. He can struggle with social interaction his whole life, and forcing him into these situations repeatedly will do nothing but cause anxiety. Remember that the purpose of school is to learn and grow, not to conquer a set number of papers, exams, speeches, etc. Is there a way you can get this same information across without forcing the kid into situations where they are bound to fail?
- Instead of forcing a kid to speak in front of the class, let them build or make something, like a diorama. They can share this with the others in place of a spoken presentation.
- When taking tests, consider letting them take the test separately if they have trouble sitting down for long periods, or give the test orally if they seem receptive to the idea.
5Make instructions detailed and specific, with measurable goals. Autistic kids often take things very literally, and they can struggle with vague concepts or goals. Don't say, "study for one hour to prepare." Instead, tell them to do 10 practice problems from each section and check the answers. When assigning papers, give them definitive word limits and areas to cover for each paragraph.
- Repeat instructions, especially if you are worried they aren't getting across. Repetition is usually helpful.
- Don't worry about being patronizing or overly specific. You want to break things down into actionable, literal steps.
- Avoid figurative speech, or vague generalizations. Things like, "the paper should be as long as it needs to be" will create undue confusion.
6Learn to anticipate and head off the events that cause classroom meltdowns. There are lots of ways to notice impending issues and find a way to stop them before they happen. Talk to the parents for advice, and keep your eyes out for warning signs. Most children have specific tics, like spinning, moaning, or excessive fidgeting that can clue you into a coming meltdown. While you cannot always prevent an outburst, try to be proactive whenever possible:
- Give them space to be in peace and quiet -- go for a walk, let them perform another task by themselves, or simply let them sit outside for a few minutes.
- Speak calmly and quietly. Some kids will respond well to touch, such as gentle, rhythmic back rubs, but don't attempt this unless you know how they will react.
- Remember that all kids, autistic or not, have individual needs and personalities. Don't treat every kid the same -- getting to know them personally will always yield happier, more successful children.
- Don't ever feel like you can or should "fix" an autistic child. They are born with their own unique strengths and weaknesses, not some inherent defect.
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