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Less Confrontational Strategies for Approaching Autistic Children

For many people, particularly teachers, the first real experience with autism comes as part of an intervention in a "situation". After all, aside from odd mannerisms and odd comments, many autistic children can appear quiet and non-participative - this can easily be mistaken for shyness.

The real problems begin to surface when an extraordinary event, such as a meltdown or shutdown occurs. Even if no such event occurs, a simple friendly intervention from a teacher can sometimes result in a unexpected response.

When such events do occur, they can "sour" the relationship between teacher and child - and sometimes between the parents and school too.

Recovery is a long process of "walking on eggshells" for which most teachers don't have the time or patience,

In this post. I want to look at some of the ways that you can modify your approach to children with aspergers syndrome to reduce those ill effects. I'll be concentrating on an approach under normal conditions, perhaps to encourage participation in an activity. I'll look at approaching a child in a meltdown condition in a later post.

Body Language

Before approaching a child on the spectrum, take a moment to study their body language. It's true that autistic children have a great deal of difficulty expressing themselves non-verbally but in general, their body language can still be read. Most of what you've probably heard about the difficulties of non-verbal language deals with facial expression. Those bits are true. You can't be sure that the facial expression of an autistic person is really communicating their feelings.

For example, if the person is grimacing, it doesn't necessarily mean that they're in pain - or frightened. It could mean that they're thinking about something entirely outside the situation, that they're stimming or that they're actually happy. Tears and anger however can usually be trusted to be correct.

Take a careful look at how the child is sitting or standing and watch how they react as you draw nearer. Try to look at things other than their face. For example, are they holding a wall, bannister or some other part of furniture? Are they attempting to withdraw into it? Perhaps they're even hiding under a table. These are clear signs that a normal "front-on" approach will end in disaster.

Approach Carefully

Instead of approaching them front-on, try to approach them gently from one side. If they're under a table or sitting at a desk, it's a great approach to sit beside them - not opposite them. This significantly reduces the issues of eye contact. If possible, reduce yourself to their height to avoid being confrontational.

Don't touch!

Don't sit too close. People on the spectrum generally like a bit of space. They are easily disturbed by smells including perfume and deodorants and especially, don't like a light touch. I had a counsellor once ask me if it was ok to touch me on the arm. It was nice to be asked first but I felt like I needed to say "yes". Touch to us usually doesn't convey reassurance. It often simply increases the irritation of tactile stimuli. 

If you're touching a person on the spectrum, chances are, you're doing it for your own benefit/reassurance rather than theirs.

Converse Carefully

As a general rule, people on the spectrum aren't too keen on small talk, so there's not a great deal of benefit to be gained from saying "hello" because you're obviously already there and hello is implied by the fact that you just sat down next to them. Of course, if you feel that you need to teach the basics of small-talk or manners, then a couple of conversation starters can be used. Just don't expect a major response.

Many autistic people have quite stilted conversation. They may not handle high-speed talk even though they often talk fast themselves. They may also take longer to reply than neurotypicals because they want to think about your question and their answers. 

Ask most kids "how long have you been sitting here" and they'll say a "a while". Ask a person on the spectrum and they're likely to calculate the time.

Don't rush them. People with Asperger's and autism aren't stupid so there's no need to talk super slowly either. Just enunciate well and try not to rely on variations in tone so much as content. Be direct too. 

While autistic people have little difficulty understanding the concept of metaphors and "sayings", they might not necessarily know when you're using them. If you tell them that you're "going to see a man about a dog", they're going to assume that you're going to a pet shop. Say what you mean and you'll be understood.

Direct Questions are Attacks

If you're approaching an autistic person and they seem agitated, don't sit next to them and start hammering them with questions such as; "Why aren't you playing the game with the other kids?". Try a more oblique approach first. For example, sit down and say; "That looks like a cool game that the kids are playing doesn't it?" You probably won't get detailed answers but starting a conversation in a light way will build trust. The response you get might clue you in to what the problem is; for example, "It looks fun but it's very noisy".

Be Sensitive.

People on the spectrum often have high sensitivity to noise, smell, light and other environmental factors. It isn't fair to force a child with such sensitivities to join in an activity which ignites those senses. If you can find a way to reduce these sensitivities, then great. If not, just accept the situation and wait for a less sensory moment to include the child. 

Perhaps you can speak to the parents about the sensitivity. For example, if they are sensitive to noise, they may want to try cancelling headphones or perhaps you can find quieter ways to engage the child.

Of course, the reasons for non-participation will vary and it's difficult to decide when the child is simply being lazy or wilful versus an actual sensory issue. The only clue is continued conversation.
If your initial comments don't provide you with an answer, slowly direct the questioning towards the activity without being accusatory. As the child warms to you, you'll find that the information they provide becomes more relevant and useful.

Next time I'll look at ways to approach a child in a meltdown state.


Karyn said…
Great article , thankyou . It has made me wonder how often teachers who have ASD children in their classes , read new in information.
Kathrine said…
Great article that I'll share on my (Danish) blog. Really useful information for everybody, so thank you for writing it.
/Kathrine, mother of Alfred (6) with Aspergers.
Thanks for this! Very helpful and I wish it could be read and understood by every parent, teacher, police officer and other's who really need to hear it. I have three Aspie kids and an Aspie wife - I can attest to it's worth.
Coach said…
Sorry about posting this, but I need to vent a bit. I coach a lot of soccer, year round, and have children who love the sport - a year ago, one of my teams had a nice young lady who I would later find out has Asperger's.

Now, this would be no big deal to me. I've worked with so many kids, it would have been fine. The issue now, and it's making me mad, is that the parents didn't tell me or the Rec program about it.

OK, so this is their prerogative, I understand that, and the girl is not noticeably different. However, there were a bunch of issues with her, every day, all season. If I had a 1 hour practice, 20 minutes was spent picking her up, watching her dramatize an injury, answer butt-in questions, or try to explain to her that if she won't pass, no one will want to pass it back to her. The moods, the arrogance (but it wasn't arrogance), the difficulty, explaining things over and over...

Anyway, although I never lost it with her, I spent a lot of the time really, really angry that this one child was so selfish and wouldn't get with the program. I really did not enjoy seeing her, having to play her, or listen to her.

So, time passes, and I feel rotten, because I'm a respected coach who's done a lot for youth soccer.

Then a week ago, I find out through a source that the reason for the behavior was the syndrome.

And now I'm so pissed at the parents for not telling me so that I could be understanding and compassionate and a better man about it...

But I can't really go bring it up.

If I'd known, I could have helped, or at least done a far better job than just be completely irritated with that kid all the time. It wasn't her fault. The challenges were not her ego or arrogance or selfishness. But I was a poor coach to her, and those parents should have told me.
I would like to thank you for the information. I have two boys that have been diagnosed with Aspergers/ADHD/ & one with depression too!!! My oldest is SOO sad/angry and just flopping around like a fish out of water! You are giving me insight to him. He is only 7 and in therapy. He can not explain to me what is going on in his head! So I need all the help I can get to figure it out, to help me/help him! He is SOOO sad!! THANK YOU!!
Willem said…
A few days ago, I saw an episode of 'dog whisperer', the one that dealt with wolf/dog hybrids. I vividly recall one scene where the wolf expert was approaching a misbehaving wolf-dog, and reading your list of strategies vividly reminds me of the things she was doing.

- She first observed the wolf from a distance, looking at body language.
- She gently, step by step, approached the wolf from the side. (This was also mentioned in the running commentary as a very important step.)
- She didn't touch the wolf (although that didn't seem like something very important at that time).
- She lowered herself to the same level as the wolf, or even lower.

Is it just me, or are there a lot of parallels here?

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