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Understanding Your Autistic Child’s Way of Communicating

Understanding an autistic child's communication style can help parents see their kid for the individual they are.

The number of people diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) has climbed sharply in the last two decades. In 2000, about 1 in 150 children were diagnosed with autism. Now, one in every 44 kids has been identified as autistic, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Rates of autism are increasing so quickly not because the condition itself is becoming more common, but because more people are becoming aware of autism, and screening is becoming a more regular part of childhood check-ups.

But even though the condition is so common, as the saying goes in the autism community: “If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.” The behavior, mannerisms, difficulties, and points of view of autistic people are wide indeed. Autism is described as a spectrum for a reason, after all.

But there are common traits, such as repetitive movements and difficulty with social connection. These traits can feel isolating for neurotypical parents who don’t understand their child’s challenges or even their methods of communication. This can be especially difficult for parents of nonverbal children who are used to only using spoken language to communicate.

But autistic kids’ varied means of communication as no more or less valid than any other communication style. Sure, it can take time for parents to figure out how to get through to their child and how to understand what their child is trying to express when they flap their hands or jump up and down. Are they overstimulated? Are they self-soothing? Do they need something from me?

As a starting point, parents can teach their autistic kids new methods to express what they’re feeling, such as sign language or pictures they can point to as an expression of their emotions. But over time, they can also learn to read their child’s own unique method of expression and communication.