Do you have a boy or a girl diagnosed with autism in the classroom, and you don’t know very well how to act with him / her? Are you a therapist and need some guidance in this field? Do you have a friend or relative with autism (or your own child) and would like to know how to treat him to improve his / her relationship with him / her and that you both feel at ease?
In this article we will see a series of simple guidelines aimed at responding to the question of how to treat an autistic child , in order to enhance their strengths, improve their well-being and learn both in the process.
- Related article: ” Autism Spectrum Disorders: 10 symptoms and diagnosis“
What characterizes children with autism?
Autism spectrum disorders (ASD) encompass, as the name implies, different disorders within the same spectrum. Classically, two large autistic groups have been considered : those with high functioning (Asperger’s syndrome) and those with a more altered functioning (the “classic” autistic). This second group is the one that, in addition to ASD, has an associated intellectual disability diagnosed.
In this article we will focus on the second group, and we will mention some guidelines on how to treat an autistic child.
Before addressing how to treat an autistic child, in order to improve their quality of life and their interactions, we will see the central characteristics / symptoms of this diagnosis, which many of these children may manifest. For this we rely on the diagnostic criteria of the DSM-5 (Diagnostic Manual of Mental Disorders).
We believe it is necessary to know its characteristics and its way of being (although then each child is a world, logically, and has its own characteristics), in order to understand why we must act in one way and not another with them.
1. Difficulties in interactions and social communication
The first characteristic of children with ASD is a marked difficulty (or deficit) when interacting with others in a “normative” way. This translates into a deficit in emotional reciprocity (for example through anomalous social approaches, problems to share interests and emotions, etc.
2. Repetitive and restricted patterns
The second symptom is the existence of one or more repetitive and restricted patterns, which have to do with: behaviors, interests, activities, actions … How does this manifest? For example through stereotypies, ecolalias, hitting objects, rituals …
3. Appearance at an early age of development
In ASD, the above symptoms usually appear at a very early evolutionary moment (from the few years of life, in more severe cases).
4. Symptoms cause interference
Finally, the last criterion to diagnose a case of autism is that the symptoms interfere with your daily life, in any of its spheres: at school, social, emotional level …
How to treat an autistic child and why?
In relation to the question of how to treat an autistic child, the first thing we will say is something quite obvious, but it is worth noting: simply, we will treat them like the rest of the children in the fundamentals , normally, with respect and empathy .
That is, we do not have to have a different treatment towards them, but it is true that we can act in a certain way to facilitate (or improve) things in many ways; that do not feel overwhelmed, that they feel understood, valued, etc. We can also act in a certain way so that they feel more comfortable, and so that they can strengthen all their potential.
In other words, it is about contributing a “plus” to their well-being, to their quality of life and to their adaptive capacity, not to treat them in a discriminatory way (neither in the positive nor in the negative sense). In addition, it is worth mentioning that many of these children can have a practically normal (or normative) life, especially those who do not have an added intellectual disability.
Thus, the guidelines we propose on how to treat an autistic child are as follows.
1. Act from empathy
The first guideline that is quite obvious and general. Thus, it is a generalizable guideline for all children and even adults. It is simply common sense to treat people from empathy.
So the first pattern emerges from common sense; How are we going to treat them if not? From empathy, trying to understand how they feel at all times to adapt our behavior to each situation.
- You may be interested: ” Empathy, much more than putting yourself in the place of the other“
2. Anticipate situations or events
The second, more specific guideline consists in the following: anticipate the events of the day, the changes that may have arisen …
This will help reduce the levels of anxiety that autistic children frequently have, as a result of “not knowing what will happen” (since one of their characteristics is that they tend to be quite rigid, and need planning as well, as we will see in the next point) .
3. Provide routines
Due to the characteristics of children with ASD, routines are the key so that they do not feel anxiety about what will happen (or what will not happen), and to put order in their world and in their mind (as we will also see more ahead).
Thus, you can put into practice this guideline on how to treat an autistic child by developing with him / her schedules and routines, for example through a ceiling or a cardboard (and having it hung in your room or in your classroom).
4. Use alternative communication systems (if necessary)
Recall that up to 75% of children diagnosed with autism (not high-functioning autism, Asperger’s Syndrome), have also been diagnosed with an intellectual disability, which can be mild, moderate or severe.
In this sense, there is a group of children who also have no language (does not speak), but communication. That is why in these cases we must use alternative communication systems, such as pictograms , portable communicators, virtual keyboards … Everything will depend on the type of child and its characteristics.
- You may be interested: ” The 6 stages of childhood (physical and psychic development)“
5. Structure your activities
Whether you work with him / her (at the level of therapist, psychologist, educator …) or if you are his father or mother, or a family member, it can be very useful to structure a lot of activities you do together.
They, in addition to needing routine and anticipation, need guidelines, concrete guidelines, schedules, structure, planning … That helps them structure their somewhat chaotic mind at times, and their world as well.
6. It greatly reinforces your positive behavior
It is also important to reinforce appropriate behaviors so that they increase in intensity, duration and frequency .
For this, behavior programs (or behavior therapy, such as the ABA method, Applied Behavior Analysis) are very effective. These also include using behavioral strategies to reduce their inappropriate behaviors (eg extinction, response cost …).