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Communicating with Autistic children

BY: Josephine Ohenewa Bampoe
File photo
File photo

Autism is a neurodevelopmental condition that begins in early childhood. Neurodevelopmental means there are differences in the pattern of brain development. It affects people differently at every stage of their lives and lasts a lifetime. Autism occurs in all nationalities, races, backgrounds and faiths.

It manifests itself as: persistent difficulties in social communication and social interaction across multiple contexts, restricted/repetitive patterns of behaviours, interests or activities, as well as difficulty with flexibility of thought.

There is no known cause (idiopathic) of autism although it is believed to be caused by many factors. It has no cure.

One of the difficulties that children with autism face is communication difficulties. People with autism may be verbal (i.e. using speech) or non-verbal (not using speech).

People who are non-verbal may use other means to express themselves and these may include pictures (visuals), signs, technology (e.g. tablets etc.). Often people do not know how to communicate with children with autism.

As a caregiver, family member, friend or community member of a person with autism, knowing some tips you can use when communicating with a person with autism can help to make a difference. Here are a few strategies to use when engaging with children with autism:

Be patient

Children with autism may need more time to process information. Slowing down your speech can also be helpful to them.

Allowing long pauses offer them the opportunity to process and respond to information.

Keep all distractions away from the child when communicating with them. Distractions may include television, phone, open door, blender among others. Some children with autism may be easily distracted by things in the environment and this may affect their attention. An easily distracted child may miss out on certain information during communication.

When communicating with children with autism, we need to be mindful of what we say in terms of their meaning. Generally, it is advisable to avoid the use of non-literal language such as idioms or proverbs such as “It is raining cats and dogs” unless you know they understand them. Most children with autism find idioms and sarcasm difficult to understand.

Use visual support

Each of us have a preferred way of learning (taking in new information). This may be through hearing, seeing (visual), doing or reading/writing.

Most children with autism learn better through visuals. They are often referred to as visual learners. Teaching a child with autism to use visuals help them to understand instructions and express themselves more easily.

Visuals come in different ways and include real objects, coloured pictures, photographs, black and white symbols and written words. Identify which one works better for the child you engage with and use it.

When a child gets what they want by exhibiting a certain behaviour, they learn to use that behaviour whenever they want a desired object. This means we may have gradually reinforced that behaviour.

For example, if a child gets their iPad whenever they roll on the floor crying, they will always do it whenever they want the ipad.

Therefore be mindful of how you respond to certain behaviours before it becomes a habit for the child.

Sensory difficulties

Some children with autism may react to certain sensory stimuli. This varies from child to child. For example, while a child may like the smell of certain foods or perfume, another child may find that same smell irritable and may react in different ways. It is therefore important to be wary of the sensory preferences or otherwise the child you engage with has. These may be related to smell, touch, hearing or taste.

If you are concerned about your autistic child’s behaviour, talk to their speech therapist or neuropaediatrician for helpful advice.

Knowing what works for your child in terms of communication and applying it help reduce the challenging behaviours you may be concerned about.

When parents become partners with the professionals working with the child (speech therapist, teacher, etc) the outcome is usually better.

The writer is Speech & Language Therapist/Clinical Tutor, University of Ghana. E-mail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.