Ask the Expert: Interacting positively with autistic children at school

Ask the Expert - Autism Spectrum Disorders
As your child heads back to school, it’s good time to remind them about being kind to other students who communicate differently than they do at school or in other public settings. Children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) often attend main stream schools. Other students and even teachers might be confused by the different way children with ASD communicate and not know how to interact with them. Erin McQuivey, MS, CCC-SLP at Primary Children's Outpatient Rehab at Riverton Hospital stopped by to give advice on how to interact positively with autistic children at school.

What is Autism?

Autism is a disability that makes it difficult for a person to communicate and interact with others. Symptoms of autism generally surface during the first 2-3 years of a child’s life. Autism is the most common group of related disorders called autism spectrum disorder (or ASD). Children with autism often have difficulties communicating, struggle with social interactions, and often don’t use or respond to social cues. They may also exhibit repetitive behavior, such as flapping hands or spinning objects. Children diagnosed with autism don’t outgrow the disorder and there is no cure. However, studies show that early treatment can dramatically improve a child’s outcome.

What are autism spectrum disorders?

Autism spectrum disorders (ASD) are developmental disorders that affect how children interact and communicate with others. It’s called a spectrum because of the wide range of types, symptoms and severity of autism. It also includes Asperger’s syndrome. ASD has no cure. Early-intervention and therapy can make a big difference.

Common signs of autism spectrum disorders:

  • Difficulty socializing with others, responding to social cues, understanding feelings
  • Difficulty communicating (speaking or understanding)
  • Unusual reactions to the way things sound, smell, taste, look, or feel
  • Avoiding or resisting physical contact
  • May dislike it when regular routines are disrupted
  • May engage in repetitive physical behaviors

Six tips for interacting with children with autism spectrum disorders:

  1. Be patient. ASD children may need more time to process information.
  2. Be kind and flexible. ASD children are often less able to bend and adapt to new situations.
  3. Use gestures or other ways to communicate besides words.
  4. Learn how to show interest and affection in ways they like. They can have bad days too.
  5. Use positive reinforcement. Praise or reward good behavior.
  6. Don’t take things personally if their responses are blunt.

How do speech therapists help children with autism spectrum disorders?

Speech language pathologists can help children with ASD improve social and communication skills. They teach them how to get along with others, understand and use gestures, and other alternative forms of communication, follow directions, and ask and answer questions.

They can also help with feeding problems and sensory issues with food, if children don’t like how food feels, looks, tastes or smells.

They also teach parents how to help their child with autism better navigate the world. They provide guidance for parents to advocate for their child’s needs at school.