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One of the most incredible challenges of raising children with autism is accepting that the emotional connection and need to express affection are not always mirrored. It’s often believed that those with autism spectrum disorder lack empathy and the ability to feel emotion – but it is not the case. Instead, the difficulty lies in their underdeveloped communication skills, which make it challenging to perceive emotions and respond appropriately.
Children with autism may have limited cognitive empathy, which is the ability to recognize what they are feeling or what others are feeling based on body language and other non-verbal cues. However, their effective empathy – the ability to literally feel someone else’s emotions, based on instincts and involuntary responses – is often heightened.
Internalizing these instincts can be overwhelming, causing the child to withdraw.
Eye Contact and Children with Autism
We associate gazing into someone’s eyes as the ultimate bonding experience and an expression of deep affection. It can be disheartening for a parent when their child avoids meeting their gaze. Many people on the autism spectrum struggle with eye contact – one of the essential elements of social interaction.
But lack of eye contact from children with autism is not based on indifference or inattention. They just lack social motivation due to their underdeveloped understanding of social interaction and communication skills. Forcing eye contact can result in the child feeling extremely stressed and anxious and lead them to withdraw even further.
How to Engage with Children with Autism
There are many alternative ways to connect with your child with autism – they are just different from what many deem the norm. You can build a bond with your child if you adapt your way of thinking. You know your child well enough to know when you have their attention, even if it appears to others that they have zoned out or are ignoring you.
Before engaging with your child, ensure that you have their attention and always begin by using their name so they know you are speaking to them. Even if you are alone, it may not seem obvious to your child that you are talking to him/her unless they hear their name.
More often than not, those with autism spectrum disorder have a deep interest in something very specific – and this is the perfect tool to use to connect and engage.
Children with autism find it challenging to process too much information at once – especially filtering out the fluff and honing in on what is essential. For this reason, keep your communication specific, focusing on keywords and phrases.
The Benefits of Structured Play
The adult takes the lead with structured play activities and provides the child with resources to offer direction. It is an excellent opportunity to connect with your child while modeling behavior such as sharing and taking turns. Many children with autism find these behaviors difficult, especially when they have siblings. Structured play comes with clear guidelines and a goal that can be described up front and reiterated as each step takes place.
Children with autism spectrum disorder often find comfort in predictability and are less likely to feel stressed and overwhelmed if they can anticipate the outcome. Visual support can act as a reminder of what they can expect. Visual cues depicting the sequence will help them recall the objective. You can point to each cue, or reveal each step as you go, giving verbal reinforcement.
Once again, using your child’s interests and strengths will make them far more likely to engage, and it’s important to use activities within their capabilities. Being overambitious and offering activities that are too challenging can lead to anxiety and withdrawal. You also need to be realistic about the time the activity takes. Shorter, meaningful moments will go a lot further than trying to push too hard and spend too much time on one task.
How To Support Your Child’s Emotional Development
Children with autism need support when recognizing and managing emotions. They may not understand the spectrum of emotions that people experience and slap a general label on groups of emotions. For example, they may label all negative emotions as anger or fear. Or, if they notice someone expressing irritation or frustration at an external factor, they may automatically assume that the person is angry at them and become stressed. They need guidance in interpreting and responding to other people’s emotions as much as they need support in internalizing their own.
Minor changes to everyday interactions can help your child navigate the intricacies of human emotions.
For example, point out and name the emotions that you see expressed in stories or on TV.
Acknowledge their emotions by giving them a name. For example, “Your brow is furrowed, and your arms are crossed – you must be angry.”
Describe your own emotional responses. For example, if you are happy, say something like, “I am happy. That is why I am smiling’. There are some tremendous structured activities out there that can help your child learn how to properly identify emotions.
Get The Support You Need
Remember that you are not alone, and there are resources and therapies to guide you. If you need advice about connecting with your child with autism, Circle Care Services in New Jersey is here to help. Our specialists are equipped to help your child and your family with communication, social skills, behavior concerns, and parenting training. If you want more tips and tricks like this, sign up to receive emails from Circle Care. We send helpful information to parents of children with autism!