Updated: Nov 13
Being able to effectively communicate with a child, whether you are a parent, carer or educator, is key. Being able to communicate effectively with an autistic child, however, requires some adaptations in order to ensure that you can understand them but also that they can process and understand what you are saying or conveying as well. Here are 5 ways in which you can make small adaptations to your communication style that will help you improve the way you communicate with autistic children.
1. Talk Slower!
I know that, especially when I am nervous or presenting, I talk super quick to simply just get the words out and get it over with. As adults, especially neurotypical adults, we can process verbal information a lot faster than children can and so we can understand most things that are said to us, even if it is at a fast pace.
Autistic people often take longer to process the messages they receive. This is partly due to the fact that they are also processing everything else around them that many of us are otherwise able to filter out. Talking slower allows extra processing time for your child to decode your message and respond.
Don’t repeat yourself if you don’t immediately get a response - I usually allow around 10 seconds in regular circumstances but if a child is upset or dysregulated, I increase this time as heightened emotions can make processing things even harder.
The way I think of it is, imagine if you were working on a 100 piece puzzle, and halfway through completing it, someone dumped another 100 piece puzzle on top of it. You'd definitely have a "WTF" thought and, no doubt, get extremely frustrated and distressed.
The same applies to the brain as it’s trying to decode a message; you have to give a child enough time to decode what you’re saying.
2. Mirror Their Language
Use similar language to your child to help them understand you better. Some autistic children can create odd sounding phrases to describe something that they enjoy. I saw a TikTok once of a brilliant Dad with an autistic son who describes the foam shrimp sweets as 'Blue Ears' - this is because they look like ears and come in a blue packet. It may not appear that way to us, but to the child, they know exactly what they mean and rather than trying to correct their speech and potentially causing them to become frustrated, we can use their language.
Linking back to processing, if a child speaks in two-word phrases – don’t give them a long-winded response – also reply with a two-word phrase. Simple instructions like "Coat off" convey the exact thing you want them to do without adding in unnecessary words.
Matching a child’s language and choosing words that are intent will help deliver a stronger message that is easier for your child to encode.
3. Exaggerate Your Facial Expressions
Facial expressions are a form of non-verbal communication that indicate emotion and communicative intent. In social interactions, people need to distinguish other people's emotions and intents and respond rapidly. This can be challenging for individuals with ASD.
To optimise your language it’s helpful to exaggerate your facial expressions to make it easier for your child to process the emotion behind the communication. Being very intentional with your facial expressions is also useful. I also use a lot of exaggerated facial expressions when using Makaton to reinforce not only the sign, but the emotion that I am feeling. For example, if I am explaining that a certain action makes me feel sad, I would say and sign "That makes me sad" with a reall pronounced frown and sad expression.
Did you know that the reason the trains in Thomas & Friends have very exaggerated facial expressions is so kids can understand how the trains are feeling? This may be why it’s such a popular TV choice for kids with ASD. They're also soon going to be introducing their first autistic train!
4. Exaggerate Your Body Language
Like facial expressions – exaggerating your body language and gestures can also make it easier for your child to decode your message. Adding and exaggerating your body language in your verbal communication with your child provides a visual support that stands out and can increase the meaning of the verbal communication.
Pointing, clapping, pushing away, stomping, etc are all examples of ways you can optimise your language by exaggerating your body language and gestures.
5. Choose The Right Method
Some individuals with autism have trouble decoding a message when it’s coming from more than one channel at the same time. It’s more sensory input to process and decode at once.
So choose the channel your child communicates best with – it could be a visual, like PECs, verbal, written words, etc. - but find what works best for each individual.
You could also try games to help practice communication such as Conva (a game that practices conversation skills for kids With autism) or conversation dice . I personally love conversation dice as it also helps me build relationships and children can express personal information about themselves, like special interests, which you can then use in the future to aid learning or behaviour.
Have They Understood You?
Communication goes both ways. It’s critically important for your child to understand you. If they don’t understand what you’re saying then you can’t communicate with your autistic child at all.
You should be looking for cues when speaking to your child to show you that they do understand what you’ve said. Being able to repeat what you said does not mean they understood.
The best indicator is whether or not they respond in an appropriate way to your message.
If they understand they will also respond the same way in a variety of situations and circumstances. This is how you can tell for sure it isn’t a scripted response.
Keep in mind that children with autism often interpret language literally.
For example, if your child asks if they can watch TV and you say “in a minute” and then they go watch TV, they probably understood your message as “In 60 seconds I have permission to watch TV”.