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Learning to connect with nonverbal kids on the autism spectrum

Learning to connect with nonverbal kids on the autism spectrum

Children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) often relate better to objects than people; have enhanced perceptional functioning, especially for details; are emotionally intuitive; and have deeply passionate interests. These nonstandard ways of learning and processing often make individuals with ASD great writers and thinkers with fresh perspectives. However, at the same time, it can be difficult for kids with ASD to connect with others. This article offers advice for parents, caregivers, therapists and teachers on how to develop and enhance important connections.


Do appreciate neurodiversity

There is no “gold-standard? brain. Just as there is no standard dog, standard flower, standard culture or race. Diversity of brains--like biodiversity--is by design. It is vital to understand that human excellence comes in all packages. Build on strengths, be yourself and motivate others to be the best they can be.

Do consider alternative forms of communication, such as typing

For some, language can be an awkward way to communicate—and it can be highly challenging for those with ASD. Consequently, some individuals with ASD communicate better through typing. Typing makes communication easier because kids can control the speed of each thought. They can break words down to smaller parts and describe things by using letters, one peck at a time.

Whereas speaking may require an unnatural process, typing allows individuals with ASD to use the computer as an object that can be a bridge to interpersonal connection and growth. Those with limited expressive language may begin to type and say “yes? and “no? answers. From there, they may move on to typing letter answers to multiple-choice questions, which opens up learning and connections.

Do be authentic

Individuals with ASD are often hypersensitive and emotionally very intuitive. Highly effective learning environments are safe, calm, and filled with compassion and shared intentions. Having a compassionate presence is extremely important. It requires being mindfully present for the other person. While this can be difficult to maintain, it tends to be easier if you take a minute before every meeting to focus on the well-being of the other person. It is about intent. Have the authentic intent to lessen any suffering and loneliness.

Thich Nhat Hanh explains the Buddhist term, “vipasyana,? or looking deeply, as observing something or someone with so much concentration that the distinction between observer and observed disappears. When we are able to let go of barriers between ourselves and others, true understanding is possible. Once isolation is gone, fear is diminished and growth is imminent. True connection can be the best therapy for a child with ASD.

Do be humble

Humility and humor often go hand in hand. Taking one’s self too seriously impairs approachability. As Einstein attests, sometimes we are right and sometimes we are not. An accepting and playful tone encourages others to take the risk and effort to connect by reducing the fear of “not getting it right.?

Best selling author, Brene Brown, explains, “Compassion is not a relationship between the healer and the wounded. It is a relationship between equals. Compassion becomes real when we recognize our shared humanity, and we share with people who earn the right to hear the story.? In wholehearted living, all are needed and all are welcome. Be smart enough to pay attention to individuals with fresh perspectives.

Do consider neurofeedback

Growing evidence demonstrates that ASD is directly associated with compromised functional connectivity within and between brain networks. The greatest disruptions are shown in regions involved in speech production, social mechanisms and communication, in general. Neurofeedback is a robust and noninvasive approach to minimize such dysregulation. For treatment of ASD, neurofeedback therapy uses an electroencephalograph (EEG) to monitor brain waves and a system of positive reinforcements where clients are trained how to make their brains be more efficient in targeted areas that enhance both learning and application of communication.

As neural efficiency improves byproducts--such as positive mood--reductions in frustration and significant increases in self-regulation are common. Such therapy is maximized by concurrent practice of language integration. The International Society for Neurofeedback and Research ( is good resource for more information.


Do not limit participation and exposure to novel environments

It is easier to stay in one place, especially if a nonverbal individual struggles with disturbing behaviors. But those who push through the difficult times in public settings, provide novel and stimulating educational opportunities.

Researchers have found that physical exercise prolongs extant neurons, while exposure to new experiences, environments and challenging thinking promotes neurogeneration of glial cells. With experience and practice, these neuronal pathways set tracks and quicken with speed, like a sled going down a snowy hill. Assisting individuals with ASD in gaining exposure to novel environments and thoughts can promote brain growth and development.

More than most people, kids on the autism spectrum need practice connecting. Yet, ironically, we often give them less opportunity than neurotypical children, who also need time and experience to learn how to behave.

Do not neglect respect

Be very aware of your body language. Send an open message that you are listening, and you are there for the child, by avoiding crossing your arms or legs. Also, rocking slightly with kids in a subtle and non-mocking way may help you connect with their rhythm and encourage relating.

Do not forget to practice communication

Use simple, non-patronizing communications to practice conversational loops. Calmly and quietly typing what you wish to communicate and then reading it aloud is an effective method. Then, graciously and wordlessly pass the keyboard to them. If the individual is new to this style, keep it straightforward, but not boring. It must be age-appropriate, so they may be interested, and even motivated, to let you know they understand by typing a ‘y? or an “n? to your “yes? or “no? questions. Break preference questions down to parts, so the answers may be unambiguous. Make the exchanges unrushed and meaningful.

Be sure to keep your speaking to a minimum. When you do speak, use a low tone. High pitches can be off-putting to hypersensitive kids. Be deliberate and speak with a slow, but not remedial, cadence. Pause to let kids fully process your words, but don’t repeat as they may still be processing the language. Rephrasing after a respectful pause is a good idea.

Do not discount the need to smile and say thank you

Smile often. Be somebody you would want to be around. Say thank you meaningfully, especially to those who may not be used to hearing it. This is very important, as seen in a recent quote from a nonverbal individual with ASD, who said: “Being appreciated is like putting on a new hand-spun cashmere sweater. It feels warm and extravagant, and I can hardly believe it is for me.?

When communicating with a primarily nonverbal individual, it is respectful to keep your verbalizations to a minimum. After all, nobody likes to be talked at. Try making gratitude gestures or whispering, “thank you,? as praise to connect and to shape beneficial behaviors. Gratitude is empowering, as it is both external and internal motivation.

Do not lose hope

Nonverbal individuals with ASD can grow up to be outstanding and happy citizens. It is possible to find purpose, peace, friendship and even true love. Accounts of these achievements are often available on audio books, which can be a great way for many nonverbal individuals with ASD to learn independently and at their own pace.

Jumping cartoon

Children with ASD often develop on a different timetable or in a different order than is expected. It is important to relax, respect, and be authentic and humble. Remember to try and connect with the person--and not the ASD.

More expert advice about Kids with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD)

Photo Credits: Learning sign language by daveynin via Flickr; Check Man, Cross Man and Jump Man © ioannis kounadeas -

Lois Prislovsky, PhDPresident

Lois Prislovsky earned her Ph.D. in educational psychology from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville and completed over 138 hours of post-doctorate studies in assessment, cognitive psychology, Lindamood-Bell reading therapy, DIRFloortime metho...

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