Children who are diagnosed with autism or another type of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) struggle with social relationships, sensory awareness, communication, and behavior challenges. These challenges range from mild to severe and can vary in each child. One child with autism may speak well but will continuously throw tantrums and hit others, for example, while another child with autism may not speak at all and will obsess over certain objects. This can make treating and helping children with autism difficult since there is not a universal treatment and responses are trial and error until what works best for each child is determined.
At Kaplan Early Learning Company, we understand the difficulties parents, educators, and caregivers face as they help children with autism cope with developmental challenges in completing everyday tasks and learning educational material. We offer a variety of materials and resources to support children with special needs. Browse our free resources and tools for more information about autism and ASD.
What You Can Do
In My Child Has Autism: What Parents Need to Know, Dr. Clarissa Willis states that children with autism are often described by parents and teachers "…as being like pieces of Swiss cheese - there are gaps or holes in what they learn, how they learn it, and how they respond to their world." It's the responsibility of parents, educators, and caregivers to develop an understanding of those "gaps or holes" children with autism have and to come up with strategies that address how and what children learn and how they respond to the world.
16 Strategies to Help Children Cope with Autism
Accurate knowledge is vital in understanding autism and how to help children who have it. Use trustworthy resources, such as the one shared under our Free Resources tab, to learn about autism, its challenges and treatments, and how to help a child with autism be successful in school and in life. Remember that an early diagnosis and consistent support can give children with autism a better chance at a successful future. We've based the following strategies on information from Dr. Clarissa Willis' My Child Has Autism: What Parents Need to Know and Teaching Young Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Check out those two books for more information about any of the topics and strategies below. We hope you can implement these 16 strategies at home and in the classroom to help children cope with autism:
Identify what triggers strong reactions or meltdownsA small schedule change or being in an unfamiliar situation are just two examples of something that can trigger a strong reaction or meltdown in a child with autism. After a strong reaction or meltdown occurs, it's important to evaluate the child's surrounding environment by taking into account any recent changes and keeping track of what was happening when the strong reaction occurred. Keeping notes on each child's reactions and the possible triggers can help you address those issues and possibly find a pattern in what triggers have the biggest influence on each child.
Use clear and concise languageChildren with autism interpret language literally, so the use of idioms, metaphors, allusions, or sarcasm in language makes them confused and more likely to misinterpret what you actually mean. Try to be as simple and direct as you can when speaking to children with autism, especially when you are asking them a question or giving them instructions.
Keep rules and expectations simpleVague and abstract rules can be confusing to children with autism. Keep rules and expectations at home and in the classroom simple, consistent, and specific. Too many rules can also overwhelm children with autism. Try to limit the number of rules you have by really considering which rules are the most important and then introducing and enforcing those specific rules.
Make consequences consistent and naturalConsequences to breaking the rules should be consistent and natural. If there are inconsistencies, children with autism may become confused. If parents have certain consequences in place at home, it's important for them to discuss those consequences with educators and caregivers to see if they can implement those same consequences in the classroom. Having a strong home-school connection will help children better cope with autism and can also increase the chances of them being successful.
Provide an appropriate physical environmentIf children are hypersensitive (over-sensitive) or hyposensitive (under-sensitive), it's important for you to make sure they do not go into sensory overload:
- Use indirect lighting or a softer overhead lighting
- Make sure the noise level in the environment is not too loud
- Use calming textures and mild, natural scents
It's also important to have a quiet place for children with autism to go to if the noise level at home or in the classroom becomes so loud that they are unable to function. Be sure to prepare children for any unavoidable noises, such as a vacuum or an announcement on the school speaker system, by giving them headphones or distracting them in another way.
Keep objects children find comfortable or reassuring on handTry to keep items that help calm and reassure children on hand, especially if children are prone to meltdowns or have sensory integration disorder. Things to chew on, items that vibrate, weighted objects, squeezable items, and items that encourage oral motor activities are all great items to have on hand for children at home or in the classroom.
Look for ways children with autism are trying to communicateDepending on where their communication skills fall on the spectrum, children with autism may talk reasonably well, be nonverbal, or use non-functional speech. Children with autism may simply point at something they want or say something completely irrelevant to the conversation. Body language, withdrawal, and meltdowns are also ways children with autism communicate.
If children struggle with using or understanding language, use signs, symbols, and language they can understand to communicate with them. Sign language is a great alternative form of communication for many children with autism. Start by teaching them a few basic signs, and be sure to make a list of signs they know so other people can communicate with them.
Set appropriate communication goalsSetting appropriate communication goals as children with autism are learning to communicate can help them find ways to overcome their language struggles. Base communication goals on which stage of communication the child is in currently, and remember that the ultimate goal should be for all children to learn to communicate because it is important to them. Try to find a way for children to effectively communicate with others, so they can use meaningful communication as a way of self-expression.
Include lots of picturesWe've mentioned that sign language is a great alternative way to communicate, but not everyone knows sign language or will take the time to learn it. This is why pictures are so important in communicating with children who have autism. Pictures can communicate choices, preferences, answers, instructions, schedules, and rules. Children with autism are visually oriented, so use pictures as a teaching tool at home and in the classroom. You can find a formal system of communication, such as the Picture Exchange System (PECS), or you can create your own picture communication system. Be sure that parents, educators, and caregivers are all aware of and understand the system to ensure that children are able to communicate with the people they see almost every day.
Provide a set daily routine and let children know of any changesStructure is very important for children with autism. Be sure you provide a set daily routine for kids to follow, and to let children know of any changes to the schedule. This could be anything from a teacher being out sick to a surprise activity. Giving children specific tasks to complete in a certain order will also help them feel more comfortable and in control.
Repeat or reword instructions and questionsIf a child with autism is focused on something else, try to get their attention before you ask them a question or give them instructions. If they don't hear what you say or look confused, try repeating it or rewording it in a different way to help them better understand what you are trying to communicate.
Keep choices clear and limitedChildren with autism are more likely to respond if they are given fewer choices. Offering them only two to three choices will lessen the chances of them becoming confused or agitated. Make sure that whatever choices you give are clear and easy to understand.
Find ways to teach children life skillsLearning how to take care of their own basic needs can help children with autism socially and can also help make their daily routine more predictable. Parents, teachers, and caregivers should work together to determine which life skills a child with autism should learn first and which methods would be best to teach those skills. Using the same methods to practice the same skills at home and in the classroom can help making learning easier.
Prepare children for new activities or placesStarting preschool or kindergarten and getting used to a new environment will be stressful for children with autism. Be sure to prepare children by helping them know what to expect. Use pictures to show kids the new environment and what may occur while they are there. Spending a few minutes in a new environment and then gradually increasing the time spent there is a creative and memorable way to help children with autism better adjust to new activities and places.
Help children interact with othersChildren who have autism struggle with knowing what to do and how to act in social situations. Instead of learning by observation, children with autism have to learn techniques to help them interact with their peers and others. One popular way to teach children social techniques is to use stories to help them remember what they should do or say in different situations. Creating social stories or scripts can help children overcome the struggles they have in social situations.
Remember that each child with autism is uniqueThis is one of the most important things to remember when you are trying to help a child with autism. Uniqueness means that what helps one child may not help another, so it can take a while to find the right combination of strategies to help each child. Parents, educators, and caregivers should be patient and should all work together to help each child with autism increase his or her chance of success.
"Autism Fact Sheet" (NIH)
"22 Tips for Teaching Students with Autism Spectrum Disorders" (Monster Teaching Community)
"What is Autism?" (Autism Speaks)
"The Autism Advantage" (The New York Times)
"Autistic Kids at Risk of Wandering: How to Keep Them Safe" (NPR)