As a parent of a child with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), you may have challenging moments or days when you feel unqualified or unable to communicate with your child. This can leave you feeling frightened or overwhelmed. Know that you are not alone.
By practicing consistent directive methods, you can master communication challenges, even if your child with ASD is non-verbal.
Non-Verbal is not Non-Communicative
Communication is not limited to the ability to speak words.
If your best friend pointed at your hair, scowled, and then walked away, would it have left you confused? Would you have wondered, “What is up with them? Do they hate my hair? What got in their crawl!”
Gestures greatly impact our own experiences. Gestures make us be who we are, and who other people want to be with and communicate with.
When we practice intentional communication, like gesturing, we open ourselves up to be who we authentically are and it encourages others, including your child with ASD, to join and mirror you—to be who they are with you.
When a child sees that their own actions, their gestures, influence you and others around them, they want to communicate. As parents, you can encourage this response.
Non-Verbal Parent Practices that Encourage Communication
To set yourself and your child on a successful path of communication discovery, you, the parent, can strengthen the process by being mindful of your own non-verbal cues:
You cannot “listen” to non-verbal queues from your child, but you can stop talking and curtail directives, which communicates to your child that your intent is to listen. Listening encompasses being alert and paying attention to what others communicate.
A large chunk of communication involves gesturing. Other important aspects of communication methods include eye contact, facial expressions, body language, and tone of voice.
2. Be present.
Clear your mind to invest fully in giving your attention to your child. Put your phone and distracting devices away. Turn off the computer and the television.
Make eye contact with your child and signal to them that you are present and ready to listen. A simple way to do this is to nod your head and smile.
3. Practice empathy.
Try to see the world through your child’s eyes. When you line up with how your child feels and how they see things, it helps you communicate on their level, to listen and pay attention.
By practicing empathy, it will help you drop preconceived ideas of what your child will communicate next, which opens your eyes to non-verbal communication that you might not have noticed before.
4. Be patient.
Let the child communicate with you in their own timing. You may feel the quiet gaps are too long, but this is your child’s method of communication and that is okay.
By allowing your child to respond to you in their own time, you avoid applying pressure which allows them to naturally communicate with you on their own terms.
5. Listen to expressions.
Your child may express thoughts and ideas to you through sounds, not particularly words and gestures.
Be prepared to put together strings of non-verbal communication as your child expresses their ideas to you.
6. Respond to your child.
Get on your child’s level by responding to your child through gestures and body language.
If your child picks up a toy and gestures that they want to play with this one now, nod your head, smile and show your excitement and approval. Avoid saying affirmative words, such as, “Oh, yes, I see you want to play with that toy!” Instead, let the fascinating game of non-verbal communication happen through your child’s own form of communication.
Non-Verbal Emotional Connection and Learning
As you respond to your non-verbal child with autism through listening (observing), being present, getting on their level through empathy, patience, watching for expressions, and by not focusing on your own ideas of how they should communicate, and as you respond to your child by expressing yourself through non-verbal tools (gestures, body language, facial expressions), you build an emotional connection with your child. You learn from them, and they mirror you as they learn about and from you. The communication building blocks start to appear, one by one, which equips your child to learn about themselves, how they can communicate with the world, and how the world responds to them, non-verbal, or not.
Dump the Stress and Make it Fun
Have you ever entered a room and were asked, “Are you stressed today?” Yes? How did they know that? They observed your body language. Likewise, your non-verbal ASD child may not appear to notice your mental state, but they do.
Parents typically stress about their role with their autistic child, but once they realize they are the most important teacher in their child’s life, plus they learn that teaching can come naturally, the stress eases off.
Stop stressing over your own mistakes. Breathe. We weren’t made perfect. If you make a mistake today, there are many new tomorrows!
Do not stress over time. Your child will learn on their own time, and you will learn so much more about your child, and they about you. The quality of your time with your child is much more valuable than quantity. Relax and enjoy being the parent.
What is Next
Keep practicing. You know your child better than anyone else. They will grow in their relationship with you, learn from you, and communicate with you, non-verbal or not. The building of effective communication with your child on their level requires time and consistency. One step, one day at a time. You can do this!