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Supporting Toddlers with Autism by Changing OUR Behavior

Today I want to share someone else’s blog post that just wow’ed me. Before you read what I write, read this short post by Lisa Reyes: Someone Asked My Son with Autism Why Eye Contact Is Hard. This Was His Answer.shutterstock_41488777

As I read Phillip’s answer, I kept thinking what if we approached toddlers with this in mind? Often we, and parents, approach a toddler whom we suspect has autism spectrum disorder (ASD) as if he doesn’t like interaction or eye contact. We want to “teach” him to interact more, talk more, listen better (or at least show us he’s listening), and make better eye contact. I’m not suggesting that teaching social and communication skills are a bad thing. I just wonder if we focused more of our energy on getting to know the child as he is and changing OUR behavior to better interact with him, what the outcome might be?

Intervention Strategies for Changing Our Behavior

Here are a few strategies you might use to adapt your behavior to support a child’s abilities to interact. Remember, these strategies might be great for you but they could be even more useful when you share them with parents!

Be specific – When we want the child to focus, reduce the number of details/distractions and tell him what to look at or listen to.

Try sitting beside the child – Our tendency is to sit the toddler in our lap or across from us in the parent’s lap. Sitting beside him might reduce visual and tactile distractions and make it easier for him to focus his attention. Ty this while playing, having a snack at the table, or reading a book together.

Respect the child’s need to listen and process – Look for signs that he’s listening (other than eye contact) and respond to those. Give the child time to process what you’re saying, “erase some stimuli” and “access” his answers. Allowing for a little extra processing time can go along way and requires that WE be quiet while it’s happening. Try it and you’re likely to find that it’s hard for you to do. Adults have a tendency to want to fill up quiet spaces with our own voices. Resist that behavior and watch the child. You’re likely to see him respond in ways he could not when your voice provided too much background noise.

Talk TO the child…but not too much – It can be easy to talk “about” a child rather than “to” him when you don’t get an easy-to-read response. Change that behavior by intentionally developing the habit of talking to the toddler, using simple words, short phrases, and a calm but expressive voice. Be careful that you don’t overwhelm him, though, by providing too much background noise. I often found that when I was interacting with toddlers with characteristics of autism or other sensory differences, it worked best to give the instruction verbally, keeping it short, and provide a simple model. Then I’d say “you try” and I’d be quiet and wait. The child was often more successful when I didn’t continue to narrate his actions while he worked. As we learn from Phillip, continuing to talk probably distracted the child who was trying really hard to concentrate.

Allow him his need to move – Accepting the child’s need for movement, and working within it, rather than against it, may ease the stress a bit for everyone. Encourage parents to find ways to increase the child’s body awareness, for example, by giving deep pressure hugs or playing swinging games before the family goes out to a restaurant or sits down to read a story together.

Remember that he just might love people – The behaviors we see don’t always easily communicate this. Taking the point of view that the child may love people and want to interact with them, instead of thinking he just wants to be alone, can completely change interactions. It’s a positive, enabling perspective that draws you to the child. The trick is to figure how how to behave in ways that help the child show you he loves you right back.

Share what Phillip says with parents. Help them observe their children and coach parents to try these strategies. They are the people who most benefit from understanding their children better and most want to feel that their children love them. Helping them reflect on and adapt their own behavior can make a world of difference.

I don’t know if Lisa or Phillip will know I shared their post, but if they do, I want to send a big “thank you” to Phillip for sharing his experience. Embracing what he teaches us may just make us better early interventionists.

What are your thoughts about eye contact? What did you learn from Phillip’s advice? Leave your comment below!

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4 Comments to “Supporting Toddlers with Autism by Changing OUR Behavior”

  1. Thank you for this, it was very helpful. We often write goals that include eye contact and maybe that is not the best way to go about things. I really liked the suggestion of sitting next to the child instead of always facing them which could be too much. I feel like I also see these same behaviors (decreased eye contact, increased movement) in very active toddlers with increased sensory needs/impulsivity. They may be listening more than we think but also become overwhelmed with too much eye contact…

    • I wonder the same thing about goals that include eye contact. Maybe an alternative would be to write an outcome that the child will respond to his name (or communication bids etc.) and list a few examples of how – like by moving his body, looking in the speaker’s direction, making a sound, etc. Maybe we don’t have to be so specific as to “work” on eye contact. Believe me, I’ve done it with many children and now I look back and I don’t think it was particularly functional to be focused on on eye-to-eye contact. Thanks for adding to the discussion, Lisa.

  2. I like that: changing our behaviour. Because it’s the only thing we really cán do! Make the conditions better for the child to learn. And being very aware of that what we think may not be the reality. I think that you can have any goal you want as long as you don’t need it to be achieved now. Then you can invite the child (for example to look at you)and give him a lot of opportunities to practice. As long as you’re okay with him ‘not accepting’ the invitation.

    • Yes, Ingrid, I agree! Our behavior is really the only thing we have any control over. I love how you write about inviting the child but being okay if he doesn’t accept the invitation. There are probably many things we can do to help a child be more successful by US being more mindful of how we approach him, how we use our voice, our body position in relation to where he is, our language, etc. Thanks for adding your insights to the blog!

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