Autism confounds: it's difficult to pin down why it happens, it manifests itself differently in each person, and it's hard to treat. But, at it's core, it's a disorder about interaction. And parents are recruited for the toughest job of their life—to help their child interact with the world around him.
In his book, What You Can Do Right Now to Help Your Child with Autism (Sourcebooks, 2007), Jonathan Levy offers ten tangible ways that parents can do just that:
#1 Don't React
What you do directly after your child has done something—positive or negative—has a direct impact on the frequency and intensity of him doing that action again. In many cases we reserve our loudest and biggest reactions for the negative stuff. Now, imagine you are an autistic child who doesn't have much control over the world around you. Suddenly you spill some milk. Your mother makes a face or yells or just changes in some way (perhaps because she's annoyed.) You just created that reaction!
You might be able to help change your child's reactions by just changing how you react to them. The best and easiest way to learn to not react to the things your child does is to decide that it is okay that your child does them. This doesn't mean that you won't clean up the milk or catch the vase your child has just thrown. But you should try to be at peace with your internal emotional response.
#2 Make Eye Contact a Priority
We get a huge chunk of our information about the world from what we see. If you want your child to learn faster, then you have to help your child look more. Speech, social skills, potty training—everything goes faster when you have improved eye contact . Here's what you can do to get more eye contact:
- Positioning is vital to encouraging eye contact. You want it to be easy for your child to look at you.
- Put the batman up to your nose. Your child may grab an object without looking because you constantly hold it in the same place. Force your child to make eye contact by holding the object right on the bridge of your nose between your eyes, two inches in front of your face.
- When your child looks at you, celebrate it!
- When your child wants something from you, ask her to look at you before you give it to her. It's okay if she doesn't look, and you'll still give her the object in the end, but you have to ask for it. Most important you have to show her that when she looks at you, she gets things faster than when she doesn't look at you.
#3 Join with the Stims
Self-stimulating, repetitious behaviors, or stims, are often done to satisfy physical needs (such as covering his ears to address hypersensitivity to sound), to escape from an interactive world, or to have control over things in a predictable world. You'll want to join in with your child when he's doing one of his stims. By joining in with your child, you are encouraging him to feel closer to you, to want to interact more deeply with you.
#4 Respond Differently to Crying
When your child is crying, remain calm and peaceful, as a way to model to your child that it's possible to feel comfortable in the very situation that they are struggling with.
#5 Give Your Child as Much Control as Possible
You should avoid physically moving against your child whenever possible. By giving your child more control, you are building a significantly deeper and stronger relationship with your child from her point of view. Sometimes you have to physically manipulate your child to keep him safe. Stay clear, strong, and calm.
#6 Focus on Your Attitude
How you feel emotionally greatly impacts your child's experience and makes a difference. Delving into your deeper, honest reasons for your unhappiness is a key to feeling differently.
#7 Work One-on-One in a Non-Distracting Room
There are three main factors that determine the quality of an educational environment: the level of distraction, the level of control your child has, and the emotional state of the other people in the environment. Working with your child one-on-one in your home gives your child a great chance to learn at a faster rate.
#8 Be Dynamic with Your Child
Nearly every child responds to enthusiasm .There are three things you can do to make yourself express your enthusiasm:
- Vary your tone of voice
- Vary your facial expressions
- Vary how you move your body
#9 Get More Language
The four key language skills are: vocabulary, clarity of speech, sentence length, and conversational give-and-take. Show your child the power of his language by being responsive when he says something to you, especially if it's a new word or sentence.
#10 Make Sure Food Isn't Part of the Problem
What your child eats matters. The way to change your child's diet is to remove the offending foods entirely and show your child that they are not coming back. Your child will eat when he's hungry. How you present the new foods to your child makes a huge difference!
For more of Levy's guidelines and checklists on these 10 tips, check out What You Can Do Right Now to Help Your Child with Autism.