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Simple Tips for Family Communication in Autism

Simple Tips for Family Communication in Autism

Drawing and using visual metaphors can be a wonderful way to connect with a young person who has social communication difficulties. Still, at times, family communication in autism can be challenging.

This article guides you through practical and simple tips so you can learn step-by-step, creative methods to communicate with your family. In time, this approach can open communication and help your child share their thoughts and feelings with you.

Focus on structure and visuals

One way of increasing the chances of successful social communication is to play to the specific strengths often associated with autism. First, we know that kids with ASD respond well to structure. Second, there is strong evidence that using visual scaffolding can help unlock a child’s understanding and expression of their internal world.

In other words, instead of using abstract words to convey feelings, consider using visual and concrete metaphors.  

In fact, neurotypical kids of primary school age also respond well to careful structure and concrete visual examples. So, you might want to explore this method of communication with neurotypical siblings, too.

Use visual metaphor to describe an abstract feeling

Let’s think through an example of a visual metaphor. You might say something like, “Here’s a mountain to help describe how you feel. The summit is for the best you have ever felt, and the bottom of the mountain, in the pit, stands for the worst you have ever felt.” Many kids will grasp the idea of a mountain peak representing a good feeling and a deep pit representing a bad feeling.  

Invite your child to make a mark on the mountainside to show how they are feeling today, and then ask them to make a mark to show how they felt yesterday. The marks might be on the same spot, or they might be different.

In either case, you are gently asking them to reflect on themselves and notice how they feel without asking for descriptive feeling words, which could be an added stressor for many kids with ASD.

Exercise for describing feelings

Try this exercise yourself first, making a mark for how you are feeling, with your child sitting alongside you. Doing this together invites them into a world in which we share feelings; we notice together we have some good days and some bad days.

Let them know you’re happy they talked to you

If your child is still engaged, you might go further and ask what they were doing the last time they felt like they were on the summit.

Here’s a good communication tip: If they describe an activity that you don’t love them doing (like gaming, for example), now is not the time to censure or show your disapproval. Now is the time to convey the idea, I’m glad you told me whatever you told me. 

This will start a positive cycle for your child – they learn that speaking up about how they feel gets a positive response from you. You might talk about what was happening when they last felt like they were in the pit. 

This is a really important question to ask (even if your child doesn’t respond to it) because it gives a strong message that we talk about the bad times, too. Simply asking the question is incredibly powerful because it conveys so much about your family’s culture.

Get creative with different drawing methods

Very often, particularly for kids who find communication a challenge, the key to successful connection is finding a time when they are calm. Since calm brains communicate best, they are more able to engage.

You may not be at home sitting at a table with drawing materials to hand when the time is right, so be prepared to get creative with the way that you connect using visual platforms. For example, draw in the sand in the sandbox, in the condensation on the car window, or with shaving foam in the bath.

Use your child’s special interests

Adapt the visual analogies you use to include your child’s special interests. Let’s say your child is keen on cars and engines. Draw a ‘Feelings Fuel Gauge,’ but instead of being down in the pit on Mood Mountain, you draw a fuel gauge indicating it is empty, and so on.

Special interests are often associated with calm feelings for kids on the spectrum, so this approach might be particularly helpful for children who find conversation stressful.

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Allow them to express how they feel about communicating

Imagine you invite your child to use Mood Mountain, and your child conveys, calmly and appropriately, that they’d rather not talk right now. Make sure you mark that as a communication success. They have communicated their thoughts and regulated their emotions well – a social communication win. 

Try marking the end of key conversations (including saying appropriately, “I’m not ready to talk”) with a ritual like a fist bump, for example. It’s a good shorthand way to say, “We did well; we connected.”

Be realistic and take a break when needed

While visual methods work well with many young people who have ASD, you know your child best. So, consider their level of need before trying these ideas. If it is a good fit for your family, regularly add visual props to your family conversations, and remember this practice is beneficial for children whether they are neurotypical or autistic.

Communicating is a skill like any other, and for kids with ASD, there are extra challenges in it. So, be patient with each other as you learn together about self-reflection, naming feelings, and emotional regulation.

It may be hard going at times, so take a break if it becomes overwhelming for either of you. Be aware that it may be stressful for you and your child for different reasons. 

Keep your expectations realistic, but keep going. Make a habit of using pictures and illustrations to augment your social conversations, and in time, you will be drawn together.

FAQs

Q: What is the most common communication problem in autism?

A: Individuals with autism often face challenges in understanding and using nonverbal cues, such as gestures and facial expressions, which can impact their ability to engage in social interactions effectively. Difficulties in verbal communication, including challenges in expressive and receptive language skills, are also commonly observed in autism.

Q: How do you improve family communication in autism?

A: Establish clear and consistent routines to provide structure and use visual aids or social stories to enhance communication for individuals with autism. Additionally, actively listen, be patient, and employ visual cues to foster understanding and connection within the family.

Q: How does autism affect the family?

A: Autism can impact families by introducing unique challenges in communication, social interactions, and daily routines. It often requires additional support and understanding to navigate these aspects, fostering a need for increased awareness and adaptability within the family dynamic.

Q: Do autism symptoms get worse with age?

A: Autism symptoms can vary, with some individuals experiencing improvements over time, while others may face challenges that may appear to worsen as they age. However, the trajectory of autism symptoms is highly individualized and not universally predictable.

References:

Pacia, C., Holloway, J., Gunning, C. et al. A Systematic Review of Family-Mediated Social Communication Interventions for Young Children with Autism. Rev J Autism Dev Disord 9, 208–234 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1007/s40489-021-00249-8

Spain D, Sin J, Paliokosta E, Furuta M, Prunty JE, Chalder T, Murphy DG, Happé FG. Family therapy for autism spectrum disorders. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2017, Issue 5. Art. No.: CD011894. DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD011894.pub2.

Autism Spectrum Disorder and Sibling Relationships: Exploring Implications for Intervention Using a Family Systems Framework, Bridget M. Wright and Joann P. Benigno, 2019 https://pubs.asha.org/doi/abs/10.1044/2018_AJSLP-18-0088

Walton, K. M. (2019). Leisure time and family functioning in families living with autism spectrum disorder. Autism, 23(6), 1384-1397. https://doi.org/10.1177/1362361318812434

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