Advice for parents and loved ones with children showing early signs of autism. How to use structure, visuals and rewards to mold behavior.

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How to Help Young Children with Autism


(NOVEMBER 2013) It’s starting how much it’s affecting us, and it just can’t be ignored any longer.

The likelihood that you have, or will have, a child born with autism is growing more and more each year. Currently, one in 88 children have an autism spectrum disorder, a 23 percent increase since the last study in 2009 according to the 2012 study by the Centers for Disease Control.

As a parent, you’re probably worried and always wondering what’s next if your child has autism. You want the best for them, and while autism isn’t something that someone just grows out of, there’s a lot you can do help a child with autism.

The Warning Signs

Autism is a brain development disorder, which results in difficulties with social interaction and verbal and nonverbal communication. It’s also common to see repetitive behavior, like stacking or lining up items like their toys or obsessively closing drawers.

Usually, the warning signs of autism appear during the first two years of a child’s life, and more often than not, they won’t come on all at once but rather form gradually.

If you start seeing these behaviors in your child, don’t wait for an officially diagnosis, which typically comes when your child is two years old, of autism before doing something. The earlier you can help them, the faster they’ll start developing. Even as early as infancy, keep your eyes out for any of the following, as they could be signs of autism in your young child:

  • Lack of eye contact
  • Doesn’t cry or make noise to get your attention
  • Fails to use any nonverbal communication, like waving or pointing
  • Rarely smiles when smiled at
  • Doesn’t respond when you say their name
  • Prefers not to be held of cuddled
  • Disinterested in other children or even adults around them

These warning signs can be mild of exaggerated, but the biggest sign of autism is if your child hasn’t spoken by 16 months old. For more on the warnings, check our 5 Signs of Autism in Toddlers.

How You Can Help

The best thing you can do to help your young child with autism is be there for them. They’re relying on you more than ever during this time, so you need to be emotionally strong for the and not get discouraged. From there, here are five tips that you can do to help your young child with autism.

1. Stay structured

Even regularly developing children need a structure and a schedule, but when your young child has autism, a structure that you consistently stick to is critically important. When they know what to expect, it reduces their stress and anxiety. Furthermore, young children with autism like predictability and routine. To do that:

  • Use matching calendars, one for yourself and one for your child. Color-coordinate different activities. For example, green is for snacks and meals, blue is for therapy, black is for nighttime, etc.
  • Coordinate what they’re doing in therapy with what they’re doing at home. For example, if they’re speaking sign language in therapy, do that at home so they can carry the connection in multiple locations.

2. Use visuals and nonverbal communication

Young children with autism learn best visually and with nonverbal communication. For example, when you’re teaching them different words, show them a photo of that word on a flashcard as you say it aloud. For actions, actually do those actions while showing the word written down so they learn to associate the two.

Additionally, the more you pay attention to the sounds they’re making, the more you’ll be able to pick up what they mean when they make that sound. Just as babies have different cries for when they’re hungry, tired or when they’re diapers need changing, young children with autism communicate similarly and knowing what they mean will help them feel less frustrated.

3. Limit distractions

Even the smallest things can easily distract young children with autism. The sound of dad in the garage fixing the car, the smell of dinner from the kitchen, the flicker of a light bulb in the other room: All of those can severely cut into your child’s learning abilities.

In order to limit them, have a designated room where you’re working with your young child with autism. This room should be different from their playroom, so you better distinguish between learning and playtime.

This includes distractions in the way you speak to them. Children with autism take spoken language literally so avoid euphuisms or metaphors like “hold your horses” or “it’s a piece of cake” so you don’t confuse your child who can’t interpret the meaning behind your literal statement.

4. Reward good behavior

It’s normal for you to get frustrated if your child isn’t progressing as fast as you would like, but it’s important not to get discouraged. Don’t show your frustration when they do something wrong. Instead, praise them when they do an activity right or learn a new skill or word.

5. Get help

The most important thing to remember is that your child is unique. These tips should be customized to your child’s strengths and weaknesses so they learn best. For example, you’ll be able to pick up how your child with autism learns best.

Finally, you’re not at this alone. The best way to help your young child with autism is helping yourself too. Go to a support group so you can learn from other parents who are in similar situations. Autism Speaks can help you find support groups of families with young children with autism in your area.

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