Talking to a Child with Autism

Eileen Bailey Health Guide
  • During the holiday season we usually get together with neighbors, friends and relatives. With one in 68 children on the autism spectrum, there is a good chance you will interact with a child with autism during the holiday season. It might be easy to simply say “hello” and move on. You might think that children with autism prefer to be left alone. While it is true that children with autism have a hard time with communication, that doesn’t mean they want to be ignored or left out. Instead, use the tips below to help you talk with a child with autism.


    Start with a statement. Comment on something, such as “That is a nice shirt.” Beginning the conversation with a question can cause anxiety. The child might worry that he won’t answer it right. Instead, comment on something you noticed and let the child add to the statement.

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    Use shorter sentences. A guideline is to use a sentence with one to three more words than the child uses in normal speech. Long, drawn out sentences can be hard to follow.


    Give extra time for the child to process what you said. The guideline for this is to allow six seconds after saying something to let the child respond. It isn’t that the child doesn’t understand but it may take a little longer for him to process what you said and then formulate a response. After you say something, be patient.


    Use visual cues. You might point to an object, for example, if you say, “That is a nice shirt,” you can point to his shirt while you are making the statement. You can also use visual words or pictures to help you and the child communicate with one another.


    Explain things in concrete terms. Children with autism often think concretely and have a hard time understanding abstract concepts. Avoid terms that are relative; say, “It is sunny today” rather than, “It is a nice day.”


    Avoid figures of speech. Children with autism think literally. If you say, “He looks like he has ants in his pants,” the child will probably think you mean someone does have ants in their pants and might be very confused.


    Say things in one way and use that consistently. It is possible to say something in several different ways, such as “Pass me the salt,” or “Hand me the salt.” Try to use the same type of speech throughout the conversation.   


    Don’t talk too loudly. Children with autism often have hypersensitivities and can be sensitive to loud noises. Speak in your normal speaking voice. If there is a lot of noise around you, ask the child to move to a quieter location to talk.


    Don’t touch unless you ask first but be willing to accept that he doesn't want to be touched. As with noise, many children with autism have a touch sensitivity and don’t like to be touched, especially unexpectantly.


    Expect the child to answer honestly and matter-of-factly. Don’t take this to mean the child is rude or wants to end the conversation. He isn’t trying to offend you or be blunt, it is how he communicates.


  • Don’t be offended if he doesn’t make eye contact. Many children with autism find it difficult to make eye contact. They may watch your mouth when you speak, look toward your ears rather than at your face or look down. Looking you in the eye might make it more difficult to follow what you are saying. Don’t see this as being rude.

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    If you know there will be a child with autism at an event, for example, you know your cousin is coming to a family party and she is bringing her 10 year old son with autism, try to plan in advance. Ask ahead of time if he has any special interests. Talking about his interest might help him open up.  


Published On: December 08, 2014