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How to get your child with autism to listen

How to get your child with autism to listen

Parenting children with autism can pose certain challenges, and one of the most common problems that many moms and dads report is a struggle to get their children to listen. 

In this guide, we'll look at some strategies and methods you can use to improve your child’s listening and general conversation skills.

Why do children with autism struggle to listen?

Before we look at how to improve your child's listening skills, it's important to understand how and why they may have a hard time listening. There are actually several possible explanations behind this, and the precise reason for each child can vary from case to case. 

Here are some of the most common explanations:

  • Conversation difficulties - A lot of children and adults with autism find it hard to master conversation and communication skills. They may have a hard time understanding the generally accepted rules of conversation, such as taking turns, listening to the other person speak, and responding to what someone else has to say.
  • Struggling to focus - A lot of children with autism can find it hard to shift their focus or concentration from one thing to another. So, if they're already focused on something else, which could be a TV, a book, a game, or something else in their environment, they might not be able to shift their focus away from that in order to listen to you.
  • Lack of interest - Another area that scientists and researchers have looked at in regard to children with autism not listening is a lack of interest. Sometimes, children just aren't interested enough to focus on what someone else has to say. A simple way to remedy this is to teach the child, through experience, that you and others do have interesting things to talk about. 

Strategies to get children with autism to listen

Next, let's take a look at some strategies that you may be able to use to encourage your child with autism to listen more. Remember that every child is different, and some strategies may be more effective with your child than others. Think carefully about your child's personality type and history to help you find the strategy that will work the best.

Some useful strategies include:

  • Improving eye contact
  • Setting the scene
  • Praise and reward
  • Using visual aids
  • Practice and repetition
  • Using video aids

Below, we’ll look in greater detail at how each of these strategies works.

Improving eye contact

One of the golden rules of conversation is that it's important to maintain eye contact with your speaking partners. This not only shows that you are listening to them and is also polite, but it also makes it easier for you to keep your focus on their words and think about what they are saying. 

Therefore, it's logical that teaching children with autism to make eye contact may help with their listening skills, but this may be easier said than done in some cases, and some kids have a hard time understanding the importance of eye contact.

How to do it - As with most strategies for children with autism, it's a good idea to start as early as possible with this. Try using phrases like "I need your eyes" or "Eyes on me" when you have important information to share. 

You can also hold up a toy or interesting object in front of your face to slowly guide your young child’s eyes towards your own. However, every child is different, so forcing your child with autism to hold eye contact may cause other behavioral issues.

Setting the scene

As discussed earlier on, one of the main issues that prevents children with autism from listening is that they can easily be distracted or lose focus. This is especially true in spaces where there are lots of potential distractions all around. 

So, another method for improving your child’s listening skills is to talk to them in spaces that are relatively calm, bland, and free of clutter or items that could take their focus away from you.

How to do it - Take a look at the environment around you and try to eliminate possible distractions or move to a different area. Over time, you may find that your child listens better in certain parts of the home or in particular settings, and you can build on this gradually.

Praise and reward

Many young children, including those with autism, can have a hard time understanding the difference between good and bad behavior. This is especially relevant in the early years, when children are still learning about the world around them.

Praise and reward can play a big part in this, and it’s key for parents to use praise to reinforce positive behaviors, like listening attentively.

How to do it - If you notice that your child is listening, concentrating on your voice, or responding to what you say, comment on it. Say things like "Great job for listening to me there" or "Thank you for responding when I said your name".

Using visual aids

In some cases, your child with autism may already be able to engage in conversation, but could have a habit of talking over you or others. They may not fully understand the idea of taking turns when having a conversation.

A visual aid can help with this, and a lot of children with autism find it easier to understand subjects when visual or physical aids are introduced.

How to do it - In the case of conversations, you can use a “talking stick” or another item that you hold while speaking and pass to your child when it’s their turn to speak. This can make it easier for them to know when to listen and when to talk.

Practice makes perfect

When it comes to teaching children with autism about anything at all, practice is key. It's important to repeat activities over and over in order to reinforce ideas and impart lessons. The same logic applies when teaching children to listen.

How to do it - Make sure to practice conversation with your child on a regular basis. Ask them questions and encourage them to ask you questions, too. If this is difficult, use cues like "Would you like to know what I think about [subject]?" or "What do you think you could ask [friend] about [subject] when you see them?"

You can also try writing down lots of subjects and ideas on a piece of paper and putting them in a bowl. You and your child can take turns taking a piece of paper out and talking about it together. This also helps to demonstrate sharing or taking turns, as well as establishing the different roles of speaker and listener.

Use video aids

A lot of children with autism are visual learners and respond well to visual aids. If your child is this way, you may be able to use videos as a crucial learning tool to teach them about conversation skills and listening. 

How to do it - A good way to get started is to find videos that show two people having a conversation. You can find clips from movies or TV shows that demonstrate this, and there are even dedicated conversation videos online to use for this very purpose. You and your child can watch the conversation play out and discuss what each person did right or wrong. 

You can even make your own videos of this kind by recording yourself talking to your child and then playing it back to them. Many kids enjoy seeing themselves on the screen and will be eager to engage in this kind of activity.

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