As parents, teachers, and coaches, perhaps our biggest job is learning how to communicate with our children. It may seem simple – but with four kiddos at our house, it is anything but. See, our four have BIG emotions. And they all speak a different nonverbal language. It is has been my greatest challenge as a parent (and to be fair, also a source of some of my sweetest moments) to be fluent in each one. (My littlest is screaming at me right now, in fact).
Now, imagine attempting this with children with Autism Spectrum Disorder, or who struggle with sensory processing disorders (SPD). Imagine communication with an autistic child whose only language is nonverbal. Or an autistic child who can hardly bear the volume and sound of your voice. The reality is, all children want to communicate, and they all desperately want to be understood.
I’m returning to the excellent book I wrote about previously, (How to Talk So Little Kids Will Listen, written by parenting and education experts Joanna Faber and Julie King), to highlight how we as parents, but also as coaches at One with the Water practice these communication skills with our children and clients who have an Autism spectrum or SPD diagnosis.
7 Tools for Effective Communication with Children on the Autism Spectrum
According to Ms. Faber and Ms. King, the basic premise is this: Children who don’t physically process sensory input and emotion in a neuro-typical way can be overwhelmed by the experiences, even from parents.
“Our world feels wrong to them.” So how do we bridge that gap?
- Join them in their world. What are they interested in? Legos, blocks, video games, whatever their passion, join them in their space, while respecting their boundaries, and show some interest. Ask questions, parallel play, etc. Find out what they love and learn about it. For the pool scenario, this helps build relationship and trust before asking a child to do something new and scary.
- Take time to imagine what they are experiencing. In laymen’s terms, put yourself in their shoes. How does that play out in the pool? Remember Kenneth’s first swim lesson? Do you have a traumatic experience related to water? Draw on your memories, or whatever you need to do, to recognize and validate their feelings. Empathy is a key in communication.
- Put into words what kids want to say. Sometimes, this is needed for various reasons – perhaps their brain to mouth connection or mouth coordination hasn’t developed fully yet: not enough words, or difficulty forming words, etc. Expand on the words they are using by repeating statements and displaying similar emotions. “Children who have difficulty communicating still want to express themselves and be understood.” Just like us, when children feel understood, they feel calmer, more connected and better able to cope with frustration.
- Adjust expectations! Manage the environment, not the child. This is HUGE in the pool. What may seem like a small thing to one child can be an enormous victory for another. In addition, the pool in particular is a sensation-heavy environment that may need to be introduced slowly. It may take time to learn their rate of growth, improvement, and ability level. Celebrate each success as it happens, knowing the effort and courage your child has put forth.
- Use alternatives to the spoken word. For some, nonverbal communication may be their only avenue. Take the time to write a note or directions for them. Use clear, dramatic gestures, or even draw a picture. All categories of kiddos benefit from multiple ways to receive and process information. Incorporate colorful charts, happy songs, and easy checklists into their routine. You will all benefit, I promise.
- Tell them what they can do instead what they can’t. Children who process words literally may be confused by “don’t” commands. If you need to stop a behavior, try redirecting, or offering positive communication (Works in helicopters too – When I flew, we had a crew coordination skill actually named positive communication. Our task was to give commands, information, and directions in positive language. “Turn left,” instead of “Don’t turn right.” When you are turning to avoid hitting things, it’s easy to see that a misunderstanding can be fatal.) While not quite as serious, the same principle applies in the pool, and is still a matter of staying safe.
- And finally, be playful! When we teach, most of the lesson is playful and imaginative. We hunt for pirate treasure, swim with mermaids, or talk to mermaids and other popular characters under water. We teach them our favorite tune by humming, which causes bubbles to come out of our noses! For a child with a fear of submerging his face, starting with “Simon Says” and proceeding to a pirate treasure hunt makes the experience not only tolerable but creates a sense of adventure. Part of our job as parents and coaches is to aid in their transition from the literal to the imaginative, to broaden the edges of their world, creating a richer place in which to live, love, and learn.
Remember, all of the above tasks outlined by the authors require patience, and a celebration of milestones and small victories. Nothing we do, in parenting, or in coaching, is a quick fix, but rather the result of hard work, commitment, and a deep love and affection for the little ones in our care. One with the Water is passionate about teaching your children to be confident, courageous, successful, and safe.
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Molly is a member of our creative team, mom of four water-loving babies, and a fierce advocate for CPR training and really early swim instruction.