Mark won’t look me in the eye, I can’t tell if he is listening to me or not.”
Children with autism may never directly look their parents or teacher in the eye, this is because:
- Children with autism may feel very uncomfortable looking directly at someone when speaking or being spoken to. Some have commented that it is actually painful for them, others have said that it is exhausting.
- Direct eye contact can be quite threatening for children with autism.
- Eye contact is a non-verbal skill that children with autism do not develop naturally.
- Children with autism may not understand how long they should hold their gaze.
- Many children with autism find it difficult to listen and look at the speaker at the same time.
What you can do
- Children with autism may never develop eye contact, but it is important they learn to orient their body towards the person they are listening to.
- Children with autism can still learn without looking directly at a person who is speaking to them.
- You can support the child to learn to look at your face or in your general direction instead of looking directly into your eyes.
- Make sure the child is listening by touching them on the elbow and making sure their body is facing to you.
- Make sure the child is not distracted by other things in their environment or engaged in self-stimulatory behaviour.
- Check for a response to your instruction.
- Support and reward when the child is orienting their body towards you or does look in your eyes with “good looking”
- Do NOT force eye contact- this can be very distressing and cause the child to shut down and not listen.
- It is often more important for the child to learn how to orient their body and give non-verbal signs that they are interested in communicating and listening, for example, facing their body toward the other person. .
- Say the child’s name and touch them on the elbow if necessary to gain their attention . Tell the child “good looking” when they are looking at you or attending to the information you are giving them.
Facial Expression and Body Language
“David does not seem to know how far away to stand when talking to his friends, and often sits too close. This can be inappropriate at times.”
Points to note
- When we communicate, we use a range of non-verbal cues in addition to our words, e.g. eye contact, gesture and facial expression. A child with autism will have difficulty reading the meaning of these cues. Children with autism may misinterpret them and may also have difficulty using non-verbal communication in a manner that is spontaneous and natural.
- A child with autism may have difficulty with personal space; standing too close or too far away when speaking.
Children with autism may turn their body away from someone when communicating, preferring to stand side on or head facing down. Some children lean on others like they are a piece of furniture.
What you can do
- Children with autism may always lack a natural ability to read facial expression and use body language. They can, however, be taught how to respond in various situations, such as being taught the appropriate personal space to give people when conversing.
This needs to be done in a way that illustrates the rule for various social situations, otherwise the child will apply one rule rigidly for all situations.
- The child will need help learning to pay attention to and correctly interpret facial expression and body language. This can be achieved by helping the child to understand non-verbal communication. Use role play, find pictures in magazines or watch scenes from TV programs to talk about facial expression and body language. Using photographs of yourself or the child can be really helpful, in learning about what the face looks like and what it means. Creating the photos is the first step in the learning process
Be expressive in your own emotions, facial cues and voice so there are more cues for the child to pick up on.
- Teach the meaning of gesture in common scenarios. Encourage the child to ask questions about different social situations and the gestures used.
- If the child is anxious or upset, be particularly aware of your facial expressions, tone of voice and use of gesture as this extra information may get in the way of his understanding.
Interrupting and Talking Too Much
“John asks the same questions over and over, he’s driving me crazy”.
Points to note
- A child with autism may ask questions repeatedly because it helps relieve anxiety. Questions about ‘what will happen next’ may be due to anxiety about the future. Children with autism have difficulty anticipating what might happen next as they have difficulty sequencing days and time.
- The child might be reassured by hearing the same response to questions over and over. He may become distressed if the answer differs in any way from what the child wants to hear.
• For some children, questioning is the only way they know of holding a conversation. They lack the skills to chat naturally.
- A child who talks incessantly may miss the cues from others that it is inappropriate to continue with a conversation that is boring or repetitive. He may also interrupt conversations because he doesn’t know how or when to join in.
• Some children with autism interrupt and need to have their needs met immediately as they do not understand the concept of wait, later or that others are busy. Their needs are always most urgent in their mind. They do not understand that others have needs too.
- Repetitive questioning may be an attempt at mimicking the conversation of others – “What are you doing?” “What’s that for?”
• Children with autism tend to babble incessantly about their topic of interest or obsession without noticing that others are not interested in their obsession.
What you can do
- Be sensitive to the child’s attempts at communication. Remind yourself that this questioning may be helping the child remain calm. Questioning is often a phase children with autism experience before they develop more meaningful communication.
- Create a visual timetable for the child. If he can see what will happen each day, he’ll feel less anxious and may stop asking questions. Try www.boardmakershare.com for some ideas.
- On a visual timetable, list the times the child is allowed to ask questions. You may need to place a limit on the number of times you will answer the same question. Make a clear rule – “You can ask that question three times only.” After that, suggest more appropriate conversation, “We’ve finished talking about that now, ask me about…”
- Some children love the repetition of asking questions and getting the same answer every time. Vary your answers, while still answering the question. For example, “When do we have Art?” answer “At 11 o’clock,“ “On Tuesday and Thursday,” “After recess,” “Before lunch” etc.
- Move the conversation on while still answering the question. For example, “We have Art at 11am, we are making collages today – what sort of picture will you make?”
- Use the questioning to motivate the child by telling him that you’ll answer his questions when has completed his work.
- If the child constantly interrupts during group time, have an object that is passed around from one speaker to another. Make a clear rule – only the person holding the object may speak.
- The child may need help learning when it is appropriate to join a conversation, i.e. when there is a pause or gap. He may need to be taught specific phrases such as “Excuse me.” Teach the child how to pay attention and comment without asking questions, i.e. by facing the speaker, making encouraging sounds or nodding.
- For children that constantly interrupt “stop and wait” cards may be useful. Handing the child the card if they approach you interrupting during group or class time can be a useful way of physically indicating the child they have to wait for you to attend to them.
Literal interpretation of Language
“When Jarrod was told to pull his socks up by another teacher, he bent over and pulled up his socks. Why did he do that?”
Why does this happen?
- Children with autism have language difficulties that cause them to interpret what others say in a very literal way.
- Confusion can arise where indirect and polite forms of speech are used. Instructions may be treated as questions when they are phrased in certain ways, for example, “Can you tidy your desk?” The child may answer the question but does not realise that you are actually expecting him to do the requested action. A teacher who does not understand the student’s difficulties may think the child is being disrespectful or rude.
- This confusion can be attributed to difficulty interpreting the motivations and intentions of the speaker. Children with autism have trouble understanding what others think and feel.
- Figures of speech, humour and sarcasm may also cause problems. The child may be ridiculed by his peers when figures of speech are interpreted literally.
What you can do
- Monitor your language; try to be aware of phrases you are using that could be interpreted in more than one way. A child with autism may miss the intended meaning, even if it seems obvious to most people.
- Be specific and state what you want, rather than what you don’t want. Say “hands in lap” instead of “don’t hit”.
- Phrase your questions as a directive, eg. instead of saying “Can you pass the textas?” say “Pass the textas”
- Teach the child the meanings of some commonly-used phrases and figures of speech.
“Pull your socks up!”
“Stretch your legs.”
“Get a wriggle on.”
“In a minute.”
“Under the weather.”
“Cat’s got your tongue.”
“Catch you soon.”
Not Responding to Instructions
“William doesn’t respond to group instructions because he doesn’t realise that he is part of the group.”
Why does this happen?
- Most children with autism have poor receptive language skills; they interpret language literally and have difficulty with long verbal instructions.
- Some children have difficulty with group instructions. Possibly they do not think of themselves as part of the group, so they don’t realise the instruction also applies to them.
- However some children will respond better to group instructions. Those that recognise group instructions tend to be the type to adhere strictly to rules. They will rigidly follow these rules in preference to being singled out.
- Auditory processing may take longer in children with autism. They may need more time to respond to an instruction.
- Children with autism have an overriding desire to do what they want to do, not what they are instructed to do. This compulsive behaviour can make it hard for the child with autism to stop what they are doing.
- The child may be easily distracted and irritated by even a minor level of background noise. This makes it very difficult for them to interpret instructions and distinguish your speech from other sounds. Children with autism may only be able to attend to only one stimulus at a time, i.e. visual, auditory or tactile.
- The child may follow an instruction one day, and then won’t respond the next. This can be really frustrating for teachers; it can be caused by certain environmental cues. For example, you are holding up a student’s project and you ask the class to start working on the project. The child with autism responds to the visual cue. If you are not holding a visual cue next time you give the instruction, the child with autism may not respond.
What you can do
- Gain the child’s attention. Address the child by name even when addressing the group as a whole. This should gain his attention and help the child understand that the instruction is intended for them as well as others in the group. If you have a classroom aide, have him/her repeat the instruction to the child individually.
- Assess whether the child responds to group instructions. If the child is non-compliant when you make an individual request, it might be better to address the child with autism as if you were giving a whole-class instruction.
- Give the child sufficient time to respond to an instruction (perhaps ten seconds) before repeating it.
- Slow down your speech and emphasise the important words.
- Use clear, precise instructions. Give only one instruction at a time. Auditory processing difficulties may result in the child missing parts of the instruction. Tell the child what you want them to do, not what you don’t want.
- Approach the child and try to gain his attention and eye contact before giving an instruction. If the child doesn’t mind being touched, you could gain his attention by touching his arm or hand.
- Keep classroom noise to a tolerable level. This will reduce stress levels and maximise the child’s ability to concentrate and listen to instructions. The child’s ability to process language will diminish or fluctuate when stressed.
- Use visual cues to maximise the child’s ability to fully understand instructions.
- Sign language can be helpful to reinforce verbal instructions. You might sign ‘sit down’ while you are reading a story, as a subtle reminder to the child with autism to remain seated in a group.
- Make sure the instruction is a directive, not a question. Instead of saying, “Can you pass the textas?” say “Pass the textas.” This does not mean that you have to use an overly firm voice or that you cannot give the child choices.
“Kate gets confused when trying to understand the order of the day’s activities. How can I help her?”
What is a visual schedule?
A schedule is a tool that enables children to keep track of the day’s events and activities, as well as develop an understanding of time frames and an appreciation of environmental sequences.
Schedules are an important teaching tool for students with autism because they have:
- Limited understanding of the concept of time, ie. Knowing what is happening or will happen and then sequencing, predicting and organising the order of events.
- Difficulty with communication. This includes difficulty understanding verbal explanations of what will happen at certain times during the day.
- Rigidity and need for sameness. Changes can create considerable stress for students with autism. One way to reduce stress and increase opportunities for success is to use schedules.
A visual schedule can increase the child’s independence and ability to understand classroom routine. You may find the child becomes less dependent on teaching staff and verbal instructions, along with a reduction in difficult behaviour and repetitive questions.
Types of Visual Schedules
- Yearly diaries
- Term diaries
- Monthly calendars
- Weekly calendars or timetables
- Schedules of one hour, 10 minutes or less
- General daily classroom schedule with activities and individual tasks
- Individual work skill schedule
- Sequence charts / schedule of daily routines
A variety of visuals are used in schedules. Remember most students with autism spectrum disorder are visual learners, so where possible use pictures or written words in conjunction with verbal communication.
You can use a computer program such as Boardmaker™ to make your visual schedule or download and print the pictures provided on this site (see links below).
A range of formats can be used. This includes posters, blackboard / whiteboard, diary, strips, small photo albums, business card holders, cardboard strips or books.
Schedules can be the cornerstone of management practices for children with behaviours of concern. Specific behavioural deficits can be managed using schedules. For example, to clarify expectations, set limits, reduce negative teacher attention for undesired behaviour. Schedules can indicate that a preferred activity will follow a non-preferred activity.
Schedules can be used in a variety of ways to develop language and aid comprehension depending upon the individual student’s needs. For students with limited verbal language, schedules can provide an opportunity to interact and communicate.
Schedules are excellent for teaching time, numbers, days of the week, months and year. These are all important life skills.
The playground can be extremely challenging for students with autism; many find this an extremely overwhelming experience. Using a schedule of ‘activities to do in the playground’ can considerably reduce anxiety. Provide a range of appropriate activities (written word, Compic, photos etc. depending upon student’s needs). At first you may need to select the order.
The above text adapted from “Making It A Success” by Sue Larkey
See Recommended Reading for details.
Laminated cards with Velcro sticky dots on the back are extremely useful tools. Creating these items is limited only by your imagination. Photos and other pictures can be used, as long as they are tailored for the individual child’s abilities and mean something to the child.
Google images is a never-ending source of images that can be used for making various sequencing and communication devices.