How to talk to a child with autism

The holiday season means most of us will be socializing with colleagues and neighbors, friends and family.  Chances are good this circle of friendly acquaintances and loved ones will include a child with autism.

Why? An estimated 1 in 88 children are now diagnosed with the neurological disorder, with a four times prevalence for boys.  Among other challenges, those with autism often have difficulties with social communication (be it verbally or via a communication device) which can make casual conversation challenging.  But that doesn’t mean they should be left out.

Contrary to popular belief, most kids with autism are not anti-social.  Yet, many “neurotypicals” still struggle when it comes to including a child with autism in the conversation.  Those that do try, often fail because they don’t know a few essential rules that can help make the interaction possible.

1.  Don’t start the conversation with a question — begin with a statement. A question, even a simple question like, “How are you?” or “What’s your favorite color?” can be like an exam for some children with autism.  If they fail the first question, the conversation is over before it starts.

It’s often not that they don’t know what you are saying or how to answer, but that the answer sometimes gets ‘trapped’ between the thought and the verbal expression of the thought. The slightest change in environment — background noise, pace of speech, accent or their own anxiety when exposed to new environments and people — can make the answer to even a simple question enormously difficult.

So start the conversation with a statement instead, then the child does not have to ‘pass or fail’ at the outset.  They can build on your statement with a statement of their own if they so choose.  “I love your shirt;” or “Cool dinosaurs” are observational statements that invite the child to comment in kind, should they so choose.  Each statement then functions like a Lego block that you can add to piece by piece.

2.  Wait longer for an answer. Kids with autism don’t usually need you to speak slowly, but they do need time to form a response of their own.  Too often I’ve seen adults wait for a child’s response to a question, and when the response doesn’t come, immediately throw another question out there in hopes that the child will respond to the second attempt.

If they’d simply waited another twenty or so seconds, they may have had a response to their first query.  But now that they’ve thrown a second item out there, the child may get confused and freeze up trying to figure out if they should continue to respond to the first or second query.

Be patient.  Wait longer.  And just when you think you’ve waited long enough, count out five more seconds in your head, and wait again.  Each child has their own response time, so it may take a few tries to figure out how long they need.

3.  Don’t take it personally, and try again later. I know adults who have tried to engage children with autism and failed, and presume that the child doesn’t like them or is anti-social generally.  Neither is likely to be the case.

Kids on the spectrum sometimes just don’t respond to social communication — even when they are fully able, and even when they understand what’s going on.

It may be that the child is imagining something terrific in their head — their favorite video game or story line — and this is so powerful that they can’t be pulled out of their imaginary world into your social world at that moment.  You can’t compete, in other words.

Or sometimes the environment can be overwhelming and is making them too anxious or overloaded with sensory stimulus to respond.  But sometimes, it’s just that they don’t feel like talking.

By all means, try again and see if you can convince them that joining your conversation is worth the effort.  But if they still don’t respond, it’s not you, but it’s also not them — it’s just their present mood.  It will pass.

Try again later, and don’t take it personally.

Bottom line: Don’t ever leave a child with autism out of the conversation.  Chances are they want to engage, but they need to do so on their terms and within their abilities.  Make the effort, and not only will you make a child happy, it’ll make your day too.

Kathleen O’Grady is a research associate, Concordia University, Montréal. She has two sons, one with autism. She can be reached on Twitter @kathleenogrady.


Comments are moderated before they are published. Please read the comment policy.

  • Barefootmeds

    Thank you. I’ve not had an autistic patient yet, but I have wondered what one should do.

  • Patrick Chavoustie

    Thanks for the posting Kathleen, I have an autistic son and sometimes I think we would be better off taking him to a veterinarian as they are used to diagnosing without being able to ask and answer questions.
    While my son is verbal he does not use language the same way as typical children do.
    Just a few more helpful tidbits to ad.

    Do not ask open ended questions. Instead of what hurts… try what hurts your head or your tummy?
    Try pointing to your own nose often when speaking to autistic children. I have great success interacting with autistic children I have just met this way. It allows a small break in the chaos in order for to focus on your eyes/face. I believe it also lets them know you are paying close attention to them which for some can be a treat.

Most Popular