ASD – Autism Spectrum Disorder – covers a wide range of conditions from Asperger’s syndrome to autistic disorders. We speak to Teresa Ling, an experienced Board Certified Behaviour Analyst, about the best ways to support a child with ASD at home.
Always praise your child even if they did a little thing, and you should do this contingently. This is particularly important when children are learning a new skill or when he/she first displays a good behaviour that you have been teaching, e.g. picking up their own spoon while eating. Give a big smile, hugs or tickles and use an enthusiastic tone of voice when validating the behaviour. Compliment by saying, “Well done!”, and make sure you tell your child exactly why – “I love how you’re picking up your spoon all by yourself.” You can also reward the behaviour with their favourite things like stickers, toys and play time.
It’s natural for parents to be frustrated and then comment on inappropriate behaviour, e.g. “Don’t throw things on the floor!”. But, for children with ASD, until you figure out the reason(s) behind their behaviour, try to react as neutrally as possible. Speak in a normal tone and have your child pick up what was thrown on the floor, and carry on like nothing happened. Remember to label the good behaviour so when your child stops throwing, say “I like how you’re sitting so well without throwing your things on the floor.”
Consistency is vital in so many ways. Upon breaking rules, you should always deliver the same consequence as discussed with the educators and therapists. So when your child asks for a treat, but you refuse because he/she threw his or her dinner on the floor, ensure your child doesn’t get it from anyone else. If they do get it from another family member, this can cause confusion and impede the correct learning process.
While it is dependent on whether your child is good with language, a general rule of thumb is to be clear and concise when communicating with your child. Why? Firstly, many young children with ASD have difficulties with speech and language, and having too many words in a sentence may confuse them. To put this into perspective – imaging you’re learning a new language and a native speaker asks for a glass of water. Instead of saying ‘a glass of water’ or ‘water’, the speaker speaks for two minutes using full sentences. You wouldn’t have any idea what this person wanted.
Secondly, individuals with ASD interpret language literally and may not understand idioms or metaphors, and they certainly have difficulty understanding sarcasm. Be direct and clear, especially with instructions so your child understands better.
Always be mindful of your child’s behaviour by paying attention to appropriate behaviour and rewarding this accordingly. If you notice your child is behaving in a peculiar manner, e.g. only sitting in a specific small red chair at home, interrupt this behaviour. In this case, put the red chair away and encourage your child to sit in a normal chair and praise them when they do so. Many children with ASD develop stereotypical behaviours, though your child’s educators or therapists will work on shaping good behaviour, parents and caregivers can definitely help by doing so at home too.
There will be times when you decide to keep your child at home because you’re unsure of their reaction to a new place and have doubts about how you will control the situation. But, your child should explore new places, have new experiences, and interact and play with other children. Start when your child is young and spend a few minutes in a new place. Praise your child for being calm and well behaved and slowly increase the duration of your stay and explore more within the area. This will help your child adjust to new places and increases the chance that they will be more accepting of new places and activities as they get older.
Supporting a child with ASD is a marathon and requires a lot of patience to see positive changes. While they’re at school or a learning centre, you may not see the effects of the intervention work immediately, but don’t lose hope. Your child’s educator or therapists should (and will) monitor their performance and make adjustments accordingly. Express your concerns only after you have given enough time for interventions to work. At home, you should always be patient when teaching your child as they learn in a very unique way. You may need to practise a simple thing like teeth brushing for weeks, months or even years. But, the most important thing is to never give up!