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Effective Adult Communication


1A - Tina Harris

Principal, Tina Harris, explains how effective adult communication is important as it helps the student understand exactly what the expectations are, but also it helps the adult feel effective and promotes positive communication.

Sometimes the autistic mind can become very ‘fixed’ on certain issues, perceived deviation from this can cause difficulties as can perceived ‘moving of goal posts’ once an idea is ‘fixed’. The autistic mind is very logical and generally things need to make sense, if they don’t, the resulting confusion and anxiety can be difficult to manage.

Wherever the child is; at home, school or in the local community, they need to develop strategies to help them cope with situations that challenge them. Learning appropriate communication is a vital part of this.

Aims and Strategies

Generally, depending on the age of the child,  the message that we are trying to get across is that the adult is the one who has ultimate responsibility; ‘control’ if you like, and that the child should show politeness and ‘ask’ rather than ‘demand’. Sometimes this child /adult relationship can become somewhat skewed, it is not uncommon for the child with ASC to make the demands and ‘ruling the roost’ is not an uncommon scenario. The ‘roost’ can be the family members in the home /staff at school/ or other students.

Here are key points to re-address this balance:

For children who still need to learn to communicate appropriately (this is where violence or ‘shut down’ is common) the following strategies are imperative:-

Appropriate communication should be listened to and where at all possible rewarded by negotiation or reduction of demand. Listen and delve further into the issues, responding to what is being said:

Example 1

“I’m bored”

“Ok, I hear you are bored, what do you think is going to help you right now?”

Example 2

“I don’t want to do this”

“I hear you don’t want to do it, is that because you are finding it hard and need help or just need to take a break?”

If the communication is really clear, e.g. “I’m too tired to do this today” Then you need to gauge how much extra demand you can put on at this point. This will depend on:

  • Knowing the child and deciding if they are able to cope with even just one tiny bit extra
  • Even knowing the child, are there extra issues that have contributed to their ‘emotional pot’ that day? Consider things like illness that they have not been able to communicate, sensory overload and the environment, other demands that the child has had to cope with already, social issues that the child has had to cope with already.

Strategies that help you give expectations in a non-confrontational way:

‘Win win’ choices – decide what you want to happen and then pose the optional part as a choice so that there is an element of control and responsibility, e.g. “are you going to finish this off now or after lunch?”  This is a very effective strategy, allowing the child to take responsibility, but the adult stays effective and ‘in control’.  The child may give the response “I don’t know”  this is a likely response when they don’t actually want to do either, but it also gives the adult the opportunity to re-frame the next response, which could be; “Ok well have a think and we can discuss it again in a few minutes when you are ready”.  If the child is becoming very heightened by the choice, it might be better to say “when you are ready” rather than “in a few minutes” as the time pressure could escalate the situation further. Another response might be to just say; “Ok we can decide later”. This gives some closure to the communication allowing the adult to leave the conversation being effective and in control. Coming back to the issue later is important, but gauging the timing of this is equally important.

Dealing with Disappointment

Often the child with ASC will have a single focus on something and will not have considered that a particular event could have any other outcome than a win for them, taking part in a raffle or competition is a good example. So before buying the ticket; pre-teach the possibility of losing and check out that the child understands this.

Basically this is about pre-teaching before the event/activity – asking and discussing how the child will cope with disappointment if things don’t go the way they want them to. Do this before they become too single focused on the activity/event so when they first ask about it, before making a decision/buying the ticket ask how they would cope if, for example, they didn’t win. You have maximum engagement at this point, so you can really dictate the expectations before agreeing.

Dealing with Aggression

If the violence is a result of disappointment then it is really about helping to change the feeling of ‘anger’ that it didn’t go the way they wanted to ‘disappointment’ which is about accepting that there is nothing that can be done. Often this is hard as children with ASC who can respond aggressively may struggle to get to this acceptance and ‘disappointment’ which can then be ‘comforted’. The messages you are trying to get across here are:

  • I understand it’s disappointing
  • I am here for you to help you cope with this disappointment
  • You don’t need to respond aggressively as this will not change the situation

If the violence is because of something that could have been negotiated then what you are really working on is ‘appropriate communication’ before it gets violent and if you can step in early enough to ‘expect appropriate communication’ you may be able to avoid the aggression. For example, you may have the aim of asking politely, so rather than respond to shouting when a child wants something, you merely say, ‘you need to ask politely’ if the child can modify their communication and ask you will want to reward this straight away by allowing what is requested. As their skills become more advanced, you can put in an extra level of demand, such as ‘you have asked really nicely and yes, you can, you just need to …..’ gradually you are more and more in control with less aggression and the child responds to the adult and sees them as the one who has the ultimate responsibility.

However, if the child is being violent, then at this point it is important to give a clear message that this is not acceptable or going to get them what they want. Encourage the use of a strategy; ‘You don’t need to do this… you can take yourself to…’ Don’t allow the violence to have power, try not to cower or show weakness, but keep things calm and non–confrontational, the message is that the violence is not going to control the situation. Encourage their use of words if this is appropriate. It might be more appropriate to try and give distance and show that you are not responding to the aggression (this works if the aggression is directed to you to change a situation) but if the violence is escalating then this might not be possible. Calmly meet the aggression with the view that they don’t need to do this and encourage use of a pre-agreed strategy. Distracting at this point, whilst it might work as a strategy and can be used, it won’t actually teach the child this message, so if you are using distraction, then you need to come back to the issue later and teach the child that the violence wasn’t acceptable and what could they have done instead.

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