In some cases, your child with ASD is nonverbal and requires the use of pictures or alternative forms of communication. Communication difficulties can lead to frustration on the part of the child and the caregiver.
One of the main goals of therapy and educational treatment plans for a child with autism is improving functional communication so that they can participate in Daily Living Skills (DLS) with the least amount of turbulence. Some examples of DLS are:
- Using the toilet
- Brushing teeth
- Getting dressed
- Preparing a snack or a meal
- Social interactions
- Money management
These skills are important to living independently, and without effective communication skills, they can be difficult to achieve. For example, if a child is having difficulty expressing that they’re hungry, it becomes the responsibility of the caregiver to anticipate and meet that basic need for the child (Learn more about speech disorders here). Conversely, if a caregiver can’t easily explain to a child the next step in completing a task, the child may not be able to react appropriately.
Here I’ve compiled a list of information, tools, and resources to help a child with ASD—and their caregivers—communicate more effectively. Using these strategies can lead to decreased frustration and improved daily function for the entire family.
1. Determine if your child is a visual, auditory, or tactile learner and act accordingly
Depending on your child’s learning style, there may be a better way to communicate.
If your child is a visual learner (learns best by what they see):
- Favor schedules that are represented on posters, whiteboards, or chalkboards
- Favor picture over words
- Favor demonstrating an activity to the child before asking them to try
- Consider visual learning programs like 3D Learner
If your child is an auditory learner (learns best by what they hear):
Favor schedules that are represented by audio or video recordings
- Use audiobooks, voice recorders, or songs and rhymes
- Favor explaining an activity to the child before asking them to try
- Consider auditory stimulation techniques with a tool like Forbrain. Read in detail how Forbrain can help individuals on the spectrum.
If your child is a tactile learner (learns best by what they can touch):
- Favor schedules that are represented by objects, 3D models, or sensory-rich experiences
- Use sensory materials such as rice, marbles, uncooked pasta, modeling clay, etc.
- Favor performing the activity with the child and explain as you do it together
- Find more strategies for tactile learners here
2. Routine and structure are key: use a schedule
One of the first things I learned in graduate school about providing therapy services to children with ASD, is to create a consistent routine. Ideally, the child will be seen in the same room, with the same therapist, even entering and exiting through the same door each session. Routines give the child a sense of what to expect next, which calms anxiety and also helps to avoid a sense of powerlessness. These same strategies can be easily implemented at home. Try the following:
Keep a daily or weekly schedule for your child and review it with them regularly.
- In this schedule, include times of activities, school, mealtimes, and even downtime or “free” time
- Keep the schedule focused on the activities of the child, and not those activities for other family members (for example, “Go with your sister to her ballet class” is more appropriate than “Sarah’s ballet class”)
- Make clear which activities stay the same each day/week, and those that may change (which leads me to the next suggestion):
- Schedule unscheduled time. Yes, you read that right! On the schedule, leave blank or add a question mark when there is an opportunity to add an activity. This is different than “free” time, which is time for the child to do as they please. Unscheduled time is saying, “On Tuesday at 4pm, we can stop somewhere on the way home from school for a fun activity.” Do not tell your child what that activity will be and help them be comfortable with the idea of not knowing. Plan to do something exciting for them like playing at their favorite park, or visiting someone they love. The idea is to teach them that sometimes unexpected things can be enjoyable and, to praise them when they are flexible with the schedule.
3. Last, but definitely not least: be a good communicator
Demonstrating good communication skills that are tailored to your child’s needs is imperative in creating a low-stress, low-anxiety, and effective communication environment. We parents hear often that good habits begin at home, and it’s true. What are some strategies that caregivers of children with ASD can use to help create this environment?
- Be a good listener.
- Give and encourage good eye contact during conversation.
- Use feedback like nodding your head or saying “Uh-huh” to express that you are following the information.
- Follow your child’s lead. If they have a particular interest in something, use that a stepping stone to expand communication. Ask them what they like about the subject, or to tell you more.
- Be a good speaker.
- Keep information short and concise, or break it down into manageable pieces.
- Moderate your voice: try to avoid drastic changes in pitch, volume, and rate.
- Avoid using abstract language, euphemisms, and sarcasm (a child with ASD may have a particularly difficult time catching those subtleties).
- Reduce environmental distractions like electronic devices, music, or other extraneous noise while communicating with your child.
While caring for a child with ASD can be full of a myriad of challenges and surprises, good communication can begin at home. I’ve given you three suggestions of how to start. For more information and to see other suggestions for improving communication with the ASD population visit: