Ask a Clinician: Connect with Me!
I work with a child who’s hard to connect with. Why is it so hard? What can I do to make it easier?
Great question! Relationships are one of the things that make life worth living. For children with autism, differences in communication skills, sensory processing, interests and behaviour may all contribute to problems developing and nurturing relationships. Whether you’re a teacher, another professional, a parent, grandparent or another relative, you can help make it easier for children to connect with you – and this will help them connect with other people, too!
Autism affects communication, which may make children seem like they’re not interested in you. They may not talk, or may talk differently from other children their age. They may communicate by echoing what they have just heard, or may echo what they heard earlier. When you talk to them, they may not look like they’re paying any attention to you. Social cues may get missed – you may wave excitedly at them, and they simply don’t react. Communication may be direct, making it seem insensitive. All of these differences may make children seem rude or disinterested.
In addition to communication differences, autism involves differences in the way the brain handles information from the senses. Children on the spectrum are more likely to be distracted by what they see, hear, smell, feel, and taste, or they may only be able to understand information from one sense at a time. Senses may be hypersensitive, sometimes even causing pain. Other senses may be hyposensitive, so that important information goes unnoticed. Managing all this confusing information takes a lot of time and energy away from building relationships. It might also be hard for you to understand the way they experience the world, making it harder for you to connect with them.
If communication and sensory differences aren’t enough, children on the spectrum tend to have very intense interests, and they might talk about them a lot. These interests may seem unusual to you, and make it trickier for you to connect with them.
Finally, some children on the spectrum have challenging behaviours. These behaviours often result from difficulty communicating, and can be a way of protesting, demanding something, or expressing anger, fear, or frustration. Another possibility is that sensory processing difficulties are causing the behaviours. Additionally, children on the spectrum tend to have intense emotions but sometimes lack the ability to understand these emotions, which can make them feel overwhelmed. Connecting with a child with behavioural challenges may seem daunting.
Children who struggle to develop relationships need extra help. That makes it especially important for you to make an extra effort to connect with them. Whether you’re a teacher, another professional, a paraprofessional, a parent, a grandparent or another relative, making this extra effort will help them connect with you and with all the people in their lives.
All children are different, so there is no advice that will fit every child. I hope this helps you and the child you’re working with:
Have Fun Together
Interact with children through activities that they enjoy. If they like to play alone, try playing with something similar beside them. Imitate their playful actions to join them in play. Develop routines, play routines, finger plays, songs, games and stories (these can be from books but they don’t have to be), gradually adding new ones. Play board games or active games like tag together.
Honour Children’s Passions
Pay attention to what interests them! That might mean playing with dinosaurs or it might mean talking about chimpanzees. Honouring children’s passions helps them to feel valued and to connect to you.
Connect Through Communication
Pay close attention to their communication. Try to figure out what they are telling you and respond to it. Children may communicate using gestures, signs, sounds, spoken words and sentences, writing, drawing, picture communication or a communication device. Responding to any attempts to communicate helps children to get better at connecting through communication.
Connect through Caring
Let them know that you care about them. Don’t forget to tell children that you like them, and what you like about them.
It takes extra effort to connect with some children on the autism spectrum. You may be surprised, though, at how much fun it can be!
For more information or advice, contact:
Stephanie Harvey, RSLP, MA, SLP (C), is a Speech-Language Pathologist at SpeechWorks Inc. She runs Connect & Communicate groups to help children, teens and adults to develop social language skills, and provides individual speech and language assessment and treatment in English and French.