Lessons I’ve Learned Working with Children on the Autism Spectrum

April is Autism Awareness Month. Every year we participate in the “Light it up Blue” initiative to increase awareness and understanding of Autism Spectrum Disorders. We have the privilege of working with many children on the autism spectrum. I say “privilege” because we, as speech-language pathologists, should look at our time working with this population as such.

Autism has taught me more in the last 15 years than I would have ever imagined. Yes, my job is to teach children on the autism spectrum how to communicate and interact, but they have also taught me compassion and flexibility. I have learned that every child with this particular diagnosis is brilliant and unique in their own way. The children who are “non-verbal” have shown time and time again that when I find a way to give them the ability to communicate, they have been absorbing and listening to everything! The children that fall into the “high functioning” category are far more intelligent than I would ever hope to be. They correct me if I am wrong and often teach mesomething new. That brutal honesty has made me humble and has shown me that every person has something to teach someone something new. There are also the children on the spectrum that kick me, hit me, and bite me. I have learned over the years that this is their way of communicating something to me. It is up to me to problem solve and figure out what they need at that moment to learn. It has also given me reflexes of a “Jedi” in training.

Here is my contribution to awareness of ASD and social communication as I have learned over the years.

Basic information:

  • There are now 3 “levels: of Autism Spectrum Disorders.
    • Level 1: Some support needed
    • Level 2: Moderate support needed
    • Level 3: Significant support needed.

For more information, I like this site’s explanation and visual: https://www.verywellhealth.com/what-are-the-three-levels-of-autism-260233

  • There are 3 specific areas that a child must have delays in to qualify for an Autism diagnosis:
    • social impairment
    • language/communication
    • impairment and repetitive/restrictive behaviors.
    • If a child exhibits symptoms in the domain of social communication impairments, but not in the domain of restricted interests/repetitive behaviors, he or she may qualify for a diagnosis of Social Communication Disorder.

How to build social communication at each level:

There are many ways to elicit social communication but the levels of autism make it a difficult area to treat. Over the years we have found these techniques to work best at each level.

  • Level 1
    • Start and Use their interests NOT yours! If you want to teach social communication to a child who loves dinosaurs, start learning about dinosaurs! Likewise, if the child loves Minecraft you need to become well versed in the popular video game. Wikipedia is a treasure trove of information for us “neuro-typicals” who have a fraction of the knowledge that children on the spectrum have. I highly recommend to parents and professionals to find out what the child likes and start there! Otherwise they will not have anything to do with “Eye Contact Ernie” or whatever the latest Social Story® may be. You have to incorporate their interests into the teaching!
  • Level 2
    • You will need to use their interests as well but you need to get them moving! Incorporate movement and activity into teaching social skills. If they like to run, take them running and find a running club for children. Then teach them to take turns and interact with children with shared interest. If they like to swim, climb, spin, swing. Etc. Find an indoor trampoline park or children’s museum with a “sensory-friendly“ night. The crowds will be less and the stimulation will not overpower the experience. Contact your local Autism Society of America Chapter for their resource directory and events.
  • Level 3
    • Children on level 3 may look challenging because they often have a difficult time communicating. However, I have found that these children just want someone to come to their level. If they are pacing and making humming sounds, pace and hum with them. Most of the time we can get some joint attention through songs with this population. We like to use YouTube Kids to find visuals and sign language to accompany the songs. CAUTION: I am in NO way suggesting that parents turn on YouTube and let their kids sit for hours at a time. Parents and therapists should be interacting WITH the child WHILE listening to the songs. Find one song that your child enjoys and add “props” to go along with the song. For example, if you child likes a butterfly song, find some stuffed butterflies or butterfly wings at the dollar store. The next time the song is on you can pretend to be butterflies! This works on building imaginative play and builds strong language connections. Change the “theme song” every month to reflect the upcoming holiday or season.

These are just a few ways to encourage social communications and interactions with children on the spectrum. The most important takeaway is to find the CHILD’s interest! Finally, I encourage everyone to support and get to know someone with autism. I promise that they will change your life forever.