Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Ten Tips On Interacting With A Child Or Teenager With Autism

Here are some suggestions that may (or may not) help you when interacting with a child or teenager on the autism spectrum.  I'm basing this on my four children on the spectrum and I am in no way an expert on every single child with autism so take it for what it's worth.  :)

1. Skip the sarcasm until they are at least over the age of 10. 

 They do not get it nor care for it. They are very literal beings.  Also a good thing to remember is that for them looking at faces, especially making eye contact, is not high on their list of things to do so they may miss your smirk or smile.  Thus, teasing or joking may go over like a lead balloon when they are younger as well.  Often though, my teenagers with autism take a so-called joke too far and either tick someone off or offend them.  They are then completely shocked when they get into trouble and think everyone is being unfair and/or overreacting.  To them it was just a funny joke and everyone just needs to "calm down."

2. Don't ask too many questions. 

My teenagers on the spectrum hate to be quizzed and often consider your questions to be inane.  Pumping them for lots of information or details about their daily life is NOT a good way to have a conversation with them and they often will feel like they are being interrogated.  In this case, less is more.  On the other hand, if you ask about an obsession you know they have....well, then they might be willing to talk at great length about that very subject. ;)

For teenagers, questions like:  "How's school?", "What did you do today?", "How are your grades?", "Who is your favorite teacher or subject?" and "What are your friends names?" always fall flat with my teenagers.  My boys hate these questions and Reagan will flat out ignore you if you ask them or tell you to stop talking to him.  We are working on this, but remember most (if not all) of these kids have NO FILTER and often say whatever they think. I'm fairly excited and grateful if they actually say hello without any prompting from us to people we run into out in public.  For my kids, it just doesn't come naturally for them to be greeters and conversationalists.

Leo (the 5 yr old) and Lily (the 10 yr old who also has Down syndrome) can't answer questions well at all and their speech therapists work eternally on answering Who, What, Where, When, Why and How questions.  Even getting them to speak in full sentences is a huge issue so barraging them with questions will usually get you a blank look or a complete lack of response while they become engrossed with their iPad again.  Lily and Leo are still working on answering fairly simple questions like "What's your name?", "How old are you?",  and "Who am I?"  We also can ask them questions like "Do you want this or that?" filling in two options. Interestingly, kids on the autism spectrum often say the last thing they hear when given a choice of two or three items.  Leo has improved a lot with this because I often try to trick him into thinking about what I'm asking by saying his favorite thing first.  For example:  He loves apple juice so I will ask him if he wants apple juice or milk.  Another example would be "Do you want an apple or a banana?" This way he is forced to focus on the question because he has a strong motivation to pick what he really wants to eat.    

3. Never try to reason or rationalize with someone with autism on any subject unless you have solid evidence to prove your point.  

In other words, be ready to reference encyclopedias, the constitution, various laws or a dictionary.  These kids are very black and white thinkers.  They tend to take most things literally, especially in the early years.

4. Never say "Because I said so!" or "I'm the boss" or "You're just a kid" to them. 

 This also will not go over well and usually doesn't work. They see themselves as equals to adults and do not see a hierarchy.  It's better to once again use facts, rules and laws as your back up to why things have to be a certain way.

5. Don't touch, hug or kiss someone on the autism spectrum until you know how well they might react to physical touch.  

Some love it, but many abhor it.  It's a sensory thing.  Also if you see them doing something like rocking, tapping, banging, picking, covering their ears or any other thing you think is weird, strange or gross, just ignore it and for the love of God stop staring at them. They are coping with a world that can be very loud and overwhelming to process, and the last thing they are thinking about is whether or not it's bothering you.  Let their parents, therapists or teachers help them learn appropriate behavior or coping mechanisms. 

On that note, a personal request, if you find yourself at my house in the future please ignore (and if need be avert your eyes from) the pants-free munchkins parading around in their skivvies for all to see.  It's a low concern at the moment and thankfully for the most part they keep their pants on out in public. ;)

6. Don't assume a child on the spectrum is hard of hearing or ill-behaved if they don't respond to your questions, avoid eye contact or turn around walk away without a word.  

Social interaction and eye contact can be very very difficult for many of them and even physically painful for some.  Be patient for a response from others, because some have processing issues and it may take a few moments for them to auditorily or cognitively process what you said before they are able to respond.  I call it the 2 minute delay.

7. Don't assume everyone on the autism spectrum is like a little "Rainman."  

There's the saying "If you've met one person with autism, you've met one person with autism."  Memorize that saying!  They may have similarities, but their differences can be numerous, especially their ability to socially interact, their interests and their level of speech.

8. Please stop asking them about their talents, obsessions or even trying to get them to "perform" their latest trick.

Okay, this is for all the loving, kind, well-meaning relatives and friends who are just hoping to make a connection with my kids.  I'm grateful you try.  Really I truly am.  But to save yourself the irritation, the hurt feelings or the urge to smack one of my kids upside the head, don't ask.

Asking them questions worked in the early years, but not so much once they reach the age of 6 or 7.  After that, they may just get annoyed and rude.  Often times they act like they haven't a clue as to what you are talking about and have forgotten every detail of the globe, how to read or even how to add.  Personally, I think it's my kids particular devious sense of humor.

Now, if they start giving you a dissertation on the many different makes and models of the Jaguar (the car, not the animal) there are, then I'm sure a few questions would be acceptable, but only a few since they may find your questions moronic and end the conversation immediately (see #2 above).  

9. Be patient with them.  

I know they can be annoying, loud and disrespectful at times.  I know they often do and say bizarre things.  I know they can throw an epic temper tantrum screaming in decibels that should be outlawed just because their iPad died, they didn't get a 2nd cookie or you gave them milk instead of apple juice.  Also adding in teenage hormones to the mix of autistic behaviors can add a whole new level of over-reaction fit throwing and yelling.  But please be patient with them.  They aren't spoiled brats, purposely disobedient nor defiant.  They are just learning how to survive and cope in a world that confuses and overwhelms them.  A world that often makes no sense with people persistently trying to teach and force them to do things that are challenging, bewildering or downright distressing (probably a combination of all three).

10. Accept them autism and all.  

They don't feel like they are defective, broken, impolite, hyper, gross, weird, inappropriate or need to be cured.  I want them to embrace their autism instead of hating it.  Maybe for once try to enter their world instead of always trying to force them into our world.  If they are spinning in a circle, you could spin in a circle to experience what they may be feeling.  If they are dancing and flapping, why not dance and flap with them.  If they are quietly reading their phone, a book or even playing on an iPad, why not just sit close by and read your phone or a magazine.  Just be near....be present to them without high expectations. They'll know you're there.  You may be very surprised at the interaction, the eye contact and the joy expressed from the child who is happy with your effort.

Addendum: Okay I thought of an 11th tip this morning thanks to the phone ringing. The best way to communicate with a teenager with autism on a phone is not to call them, but to TEXT them.  Umm, now that I think about it, the best way to communicate with ANY teenager is to text them, but when you have a teenager with autism, texting may actually help them communicate with you more.  You may even be surprised at the exchange you have via text. I've had some really nice and productive conversations with Reagan texting that wouldn't have gone over as well in person.  Reading someones body language and facial expressions can be very difficult when you have autism and when you take that factor out, they seem to become more relaxed and more willing to respond.  Also you don't have to be chatty texting which works well since they dislike chatty.  The only downside is sometimes they once again lose their filter and text inappropriate comments that they and their peers may find hilarious, but you the parent or adult not so much.  

I also could call multiple times on their cell phone or the home phone and it will go to voicemail almost every time.  In the rare instance they actually answer the phone, be prepared for almost zero phone skills (no matter how much we've coached and worked on them), stilted speech and a hint of irritation in their tone when you (if you're lucky) hear them say hi. Sometimes you may just hear breathing as they wait for you to talk.      

**So there you go, 10 11 tips to help you interact with my offspring and others similar to them on the autism spectrum.  I just want to clarify that autism is a vast and complicated diagnosis. Obviously there are children on the spectrum that are nonverbal or completely different from my sons and daughter.  Since my teenage sons are very verbal and the younger two are verbal to some extent, my tips are geared more to the kiddos with autism who have acquired speech.



Molly said...

"They don't feel like they are defective, broken, impolite, hyper, gross, weird, inappropriate or need to be cured. I want them to embrace their autism instead of hating it. Maybe for once try to enter their world instead of always trying to force them into our world. "


Anonymous said...

I am female, and I don`t have a diagnosis, but my mom thinks I am on the spectrum, and I probably am. I can identify with a lot of what you wrote. I would be much more on the typical side of the spectrum, with no stimming, for example). I am very tactile and there are certain feeling I can't stand, such as my hands being dry(such as being coated with dust or dry dirt or chalk), and suede I dislike with a passion, although these preferences haven't dictated my clothes such as some people can't handle tags or certain tshirt materials, but I will choose a waffle knit sweater or pajamas over anything.

I just turned 21, and a year ago I learned about eye contact. It kind of made me uncomfortable before, but it just wasn`t natural. It still isn`t, I would rather look at someone`s mouth while they are talking (honestly it still makes sense to me, I am lip reading as well as listening!), but now I make eye contact with most people.

I too answer my mom's questions shortly. I often feel like she is prying. Basically, unless I want to talk about it, I will get out of the conversation as quickly as possible. Even though I know she isn't analyzing every word I say, it often feels like she is trying to pull my story apart, trying to find a flaw that points out I was lying. It sounds strange, but I feel saying I was with a friend is enough, and she wants to know names, even though she does not have a face to put to the name, which is probably why I find it so strange- she doesn't know this friend, so why is a name important?

Anyway, it sounds like you know your kids really well, but I just thought it might be interesting to you to hear from me, particularly how at some point, the eye contact thing just clicked (though I do not recall ever being coached for eye contact). I hope any difficulties for your kids click at some point too!