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Advice on How to Talk to Autistic Kids

written by: Debbie Roome • edited by: Paul Arnold • updated: 11/19/2010

Autism is a form of disability and many people are uncomfortable when conversing with the disabled. Autistic kids are even more of a challenge as they may be non-verbal and non-responsive. Read on to find out how to talk to these children.

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    Understanding Autism and Conversation Skills

    One of the signs of autism is problems with communication. On the high functioning end of the spectrum, kids may be able to speak and communicate but their language is often stilted and pedantic. This is often coupled with a lack of expression and may be off-putting to someone who is chatting to them for the first time.

    On the lower end of the spectrum, children may seem to be wrapped up in their own world and communication is sparse. Some may not speak at all while others develop a sign language to communicate their needs. Even if an autistic child cannot speak, it is important to keep on talking to him or her as studies have proved that they can understand what is said to them.

    Language development is often slow in autistic children and estimates are that by the age of four, only a quarter of autistic children use speech meaningfully. Another 25% are echolalic meaning they repeat what is said to them but without understanding.

    For those who want to know how to talk to autistic kids, there are several ways of making communication easier.

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    The Challenges of Talking to Autistic Kids

    People most often come into contact with autistic kids through family and friends, at schools or in a medical environment. While they may mean well and want to try and communicate, their fear of doing the wrong thing or looking stupid may hold them back. The challenges of how to talk to autistic kids include the following points:

    • Autistic kids struggle with eye contact and it may appear that they are not listening
    • Answers may be inappropriate and off the point
    • Some autistic children speak in a strange, formal manner and sound odd
    • Figures of speech and sarcasm are often misunderstood
    • The child may dominate the conversation and speak only about what interests him or her
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    Practical Tips on how to Talk to Autistic Kids

    Parents and other family members will greatly appreciate it when someone makes an effort to talk to their autistic child. Depending on the child’s level of function, they will appreciate it too. Talking to an autistic child is a new experience for many people and here are some tips on how to make the experience easier:

    • Accept that the conversation will probably not be normal
    • Don’t be put off by a lack of eye contact or disinterested body language
    • Speak literally and don’t use metaphors, figures of speech or words that have double meanings
    • An autistic child may interrupt a conversation and say something totally off the point
    • Group conversations can be extremely confusing to autistic children. Aim at a one-on-one talk
    • If an autistic child does not understand what has been said, there may be a long silence as they think about it, followed by a switch to a completely different topic
    • Many autistic children have an obsession with a certain interest. They may dominate the conversation by talking about this in great detail
    • Don't attempt a conversation in a busy environment. Talk to the child in a quiet room without distractions and noise that might cause sensory overload
    • Some autistic children may parrot everything said to them. This is known as echolalia

    Autistic children are not easy to talk to but with perseverance and effort, it is possible to engage many of them in conversation. Even if this is one-sided or stilted and slow, it has value for the child and their family as well as the person initiating it.

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    Resources

    Children with Autism, a Parent's Guide, Michael D Powers, Woodbine House, 2000

    Parenting Your Asperger Child, Alan Sohn and Cathy Grayson, Perigee Books, 2005