Establishing communication with any child can be a challenge, but connecting with an autistic children can present special and unique difficulties. It often seems as if there is no common ground or shared experiences to draw on. The answer is to enter the child’s perceptual world and find common ground on his terms.
Perception vs Communication
Babies rely on perception to make sense of the world. Whatever moves in their field of vision is the most interesting thing in the world at that very moment, be it the family cat, a crib mobile, or their own chubby little toes. Autistic children are often more actively engaged in this perceptual world than the real one, only peripherally aware of what’s happening outside a narrow mental field of vision. Getting the attention of such a child requires patience and a sensory approach.
To establish a bond with an autistic child, you have to get down on his level and introduce sensory experiences. Come prepared with textures – fur, nubbly leather, soft micro-plush – and interactive sensory aids, like bubble wrap, crinkly cellophane gift wrap, or tape. Toys and games that move, light up, and play music or make sounds are also interesting and engaging.
Participation is key. To bring a child closer to communication, you can’t just hand an autistic child a toy or an object and observe. You have to enjoy it with him, voice supporting words, and participate while he learns to apply sensory experiences to the outside world.
You may be wondering how to apply these techniques to telespeech. The answer is to prepare and engage the child’s parent with similar tactile objects that you can use to mimic his play, and by holding things up next to your face – not just directly into the camera where the object is sole focus. You want to connect interesting activities, like ripping tape into pieces and sticking it to things, with you. As time goes on, the child begins to associate your iPad or laptop session with fun activities and new experiences, and begins to engage.
It’s not an easy task, and it never will be. But even the most withdrawn child will respond to something, and the answer to breaking through to many non-verbal autistic children lies in sensory perception.
How would you handle a severely autistic child in your practice? Are there techniques that you find more successful?