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How to Improve Trust Between You and an Autistic Child

Updated: Feb 20

Trust is everything with children. Being able to establish a safe, trusting and reliable relationship will allow you to work closely with that child or young person to support them in all areas of their development. When children feel safe and secure they’re more likely to try new things outside of their comfort zone. Hopefully, you will already have a good relationship with children in your care, but here are some ways in which you can strengthen the trust between you and a child with autism.

The Team Around A Child

The team of professionals who work with an children and families who might need a little extra support from professionals in order to achieve expected standards of health, education, development or welfare, is known as the Team Around a Child (TAC). This team is comprised of professionals (teachers, social workers, SALT's or OT's), parents, carers and sometimes medical professionals.

Without a doubt, parents know their children better than anyone else. Therefore, professionals should look to parents or carers as the primary way to learn the strengths, weaknesses, causes of anxiety, likes and dislikes of children in their care.

Learn Their Likes and Dislikes

Many children with Special Educational Needs (SEN), particularly autism, have special interests - and by this I mean a particular subject or topic that they are completely obsessed with. You will quickly get to know what this special interest is as the child you are teaching or caring for will often talk at length about it and most of their play or toys will also centre around it.

It is important to really take time to truly understand aspects of their special interest. Spend some time familiarising yourself with various concepts within their specialist interest. For example, I had a child obsessed with cars and so I studied all different models of cars, their stats, any famous people who owned certain cars etc. This will help you get on your child’s level and genuinely engage in activities with them. Your child will love it when you do this. This also opens up opportunities for you to incorporate special interests in learning activities.

Introduce New Activities

You shouldn't discourage engagement in a child's special interest, but it can, at times, become all consuming and so introducing new interests or activities is a good idea as well - as long as it is done correctly!

  1. Start with a child's current special interest

  2. Slowly introduce a topic or idea that is related to their special interest - keep the focus on how it relates to their interest at first!

  3. Slowly introduce new information that is unrelated

  4. Once you have their attention, you can now focus on the new topic or idea and move away from their interest

This may not work for all children but it is a gradual way of introducing new ideas and interests to broaden their horizons.

Understand Their Triggers

Knowing what upsets or distresses a child is just as important as knowing and understanding what they like and are interested in. The more you understand a child’s triggers the better you can foresee, and hopefully prevent, meltdowns. You will undoubtedly see subtle changes in behaviour when a child is exposed to certain environments or stimuli that indicate they are upset - these behaviours may include stimming, pacing, looking frantic or becoming extra clingy.

Make note of things that upset your child and you’ll begin seeing patterns develop. This includes noting the environment and situation, plus what happened before, during, and after they were upset. Understanding these triggers is a valuable resource you can use advantageously.

Acknowledge Any Attempt to Communicate

Trust is often built on feeling like you are being heard by the other person. Even if a child does not use verbal language to communicate, be sure to always take time to understand them if they make any attempt to communicate via sign, PECS, actions or gestures. It may not always be clear what they want or are trying to communicate but take your time, try to decode it and then respond to them appropriately.

Acknowledge Feelings

When a child engages in disruptive behaviour it’s natural to want them to stop. However, instead of blaming or punishing them for how they’re acting stop and think how they must be feeling and then acknowledge those feelings. All behaviour is a form of communication so don't punish them for trying to express their feelings or emotions.

When you understand a child’s feelings and respond to their actions, it builds trust and helps your child know that you’re a “safe” person.

Shared Control

Allow children to make their own choices! When it comes to things like activities, snack options, schedules etc. give children options they can choose from so that they can feel as if they have some control over their own life. Of course, some options are non-negotiable but wherever a child can have input, let them.

Something to keep in mind is that whatever options you offer have to be actually available! For example, if you are offering snack options as crackers or crisps, be sure you have both in stock! Similarly, be specific with your options and avoid open ended questions. You could find yourself in a bit of a tricky situation if you simply ask "What would you like for snack?" and they answer with something you don't have.

Be Dependable, Reliable and Clear

Children with autism need structure and for things to be consistent and predictable. This includes you! Social situations are often unpredictable and that’s a major factor in why social interaction is so challenging for autistic children. You should always behave predictably so your child can at least know what to expect with you.

Make sure you clearly state expectations, rules, and intentions to your child and remain consistent. If a child always knows what to expect from you they will feel more at ease, less anxious, and more trusting.

It is important that you are also reliable. Working with children who are autistic is challenging, but showing up for them every day will mean the world. You are showing to that child that you will be there for them no matter what.

Celebrate Success

It's hard to trust someone who is constantly trying to change or 'fix' you. Children with SEN already find life so hard to navigate, so when they find someone who celebrates their successes and wins, it can bring them so much joy. As often as possible focus on your child’s successes and build up their self-esteem. When children feel better, they do better.

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