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Fact-checked by Vincenza De Falco, Autism & Learning Disabilities Specialist Coach.
As is the case with most children, autistic children can become overwhelmed when they meet someone new. In addition to the usual insecurities, the autistic child might be dealing with social challenges or sensory issues.
It would help if you stayed relaxed to help put the child at ease while taking steps to minimize the struggle to meet someone new. Continue reading to learn how to introduce yourself to an autistic child.
Understanding the Autistic Child
If you have a better understanding of the autistic child, it will be easier to make your introduction less stressful for yourself and the child. You need to be aware that no two autistic children are alike, much the way that no two neurotypical children are alike. However, many autistic children face challenges when they meet someone new.
They might have sensory issues that feel overwhelming. Some children react strongly to certain sounds and smells, and something as simple as your perfume or the pattern on your shirt may be too much stimulation for the child’s senses. It is essential to be sensitive to this when you meet an autistic child.
Some autistic children also have social challenges. The child may not be able to read your nonverbal cues, such as your body language or smile. It is the tone of your voice and the setting that will significantly impact how your meeting goes.
Some children with autism lack theory of mind, which means that they might not understand your intention, beliefs, or desires. Be aware of this when you meet an autistic child.
Find a Quiet Place Where the Child Is Comfortable
First, you want to find a place that is quiet where the child is comfortable. This might be in a classroom that they are familiar with or in the child’s home. This will help reduce the sensory stimuli that can be very distracting for a child on the spectrum.
Autistic children can have difficulty with transitions, such as meeting someone new. If you are in a quiet place where the child is comfortable, it can reduce stress.
Make Sure That Someone Who Knows the Child Is Present
The adults in the autistic child’s life, such as the parents or a teacher, will help the child through the transition. It is likely that they have been working on reminders and prompts to interact with a stranger. Also, the child might be aware that talking to strangers is unsafe.
Having the trusted adult present will help you because you can look to this person for guidance. When a child has autism, every interaction and introduction is an opportunity to learn and grow, so it is always essential to be done safely with someone there who knows the child well.
Focus on What You Say Rather Than Your Nonverbal Cues
Children with autism often have trouble recognizing nonverbal cues. This can be difficult because body language, such as a smile or looking someone in the eyes, is a part of how people often make introductions. When you introduce yourself to a child with autism, your focus should be on what you say rather than how you present yourself.
Use precise language and simple sentences to make the child feel comfortable. For example, you can say, “Hi, I’m John.” Don’t stick your hand out for a handshake; you can ask the child instead. An autistic child can better understand direct and clear communication than body language and gestures, so you need to say it rather than showing it. You can say, “May I shake your hand?”
The child may not respond, or he or she may say no. It would help if you respected whatever the response is because the child may not be comfortable. Stay calm and relaxed, and keep your sentences short and to the point. It may take some time for the child to feel comfortable speaking to you.
Make Sure That You Are Patient
When you introduce yourself to a child with autism, you need to be patient. There may be a pause or a delay, and that is okay. Some autistic children have a processing delay and need a minute to take in what is happening or what you have said.
If you ask the child a question, give the child as much time as they need to respond. You might not realize that an answer will come, and the best thing to do is to be patient and give the child as much time as he or she needs.
Try Participating in an Activity the Child Is Enjoying
If you have just met a child with autism and find that he or she isn’t responding to you, you can try to do what the child is doing. For instance, if the child is looking at a toy train, you might sit down and play with part of the train set.
If the child is drawing, you can get out a piece of paper and draw. This is a way to form a connection that is comfortable and could put the child at ease.
Don’t Assume the Child Knows Your Intentions
No matter the reason for your introduction, it would help if you did not assume the child knows your intentions. Having a theory of mind impairment means that the child doesn’t understand what you want, feel, or believe.
You might use your knowledge and experiences to draw conclusions about other people, but children with autism often do not do this. You might be a friend of the family, but the child will not necessarily make that connection. You should communicate this kind of thing to the child so that the child does know.
Don’t Ask Too Many Questions
Rather than asking a lot of questions, make statements that leave the door open for a response. Autistic children often have trouble forming questions. They can become overwhelmed if you start asking a lot of questions right after you meet them. Rather than asking a lot of questions, make simple statements. Be literal in your speech, and keep it simple.
When you introduce yourself to a child with autism, it is crucial to make sure that the interaction is as positive as possible. You need to be aware that the child might feel overwhelmed or be experiencing sensory stimulation that is uncomfortable. Make sure that you are in a quiet, safe space with someone the child knows and trusts.
Stay calm and relaxed and speak clearly and literally. Ensure that you are patient and give the child as much time as they need to respond. Don’t rely on your body language or your smile to communicate how you are feeling. Autistic children often don’t read body language, and you need to say what you are feeling.
In place of your smile, you can say, “It’s nice to meet you.” The child is more likely to understand what you are trying to communicate, and it will be a more positive interaction.
Vincenza De Falco is an Autism & Learning Disabilities (LD) specialist coach with extensive experience working with young people with various needs in different settings. Her passion for Autism & LD started as a volunteer at a multi-functional provision for Autism whilst studying for a BA in Theatre, Education, and Deaf Studies.
Throughout her career, Vincenza continues her professional development alongside working within numerous support and leadership roles in education and charities. Having gained Level 3 in Speech and Language Support, HLTA qualification, Level 3 Award in Education and Training, and Level 3 CMI Coaching qualification, Vincenza has furthered her expertise within Autism & LD.
Entering the Third Sector as a Project Manager developing and delivering a specialist NEET program, she subsequently joined ThinkForward’s newest venture DFN MoveForward, supporting young people with Autism & LD to successfully transition from education into paid employment. Through 1:1 coaching, family support, and training employers to become disability confident, Vincenza builds bespoke programs for young people with the end goal of work readiness and employment. Through Vincenza’s passion for creating systemic change in Disability and employment, she forms part of the successful partnership running the DFN Project Search Supported Internship at Moorfields Eye Hospital.