Like any kids, children with autism can get a bit overwhelmed when meeting new people for the first time. On top of the regular challenges of feeling shy or unsure, kids on the spectrum may also be dealing with sensory issues and social challenges their neurotypical peers may not. When you're ready to introduce yourself, keep these tips in mind to help the child feel as comfortable as possible.
Choose a Quiet Place to Introduce Yourself
For a kid on the spectrum, the world can be a very loud place. Sensory stimuli are coming in from all over the place, and their brains can't always sort through all the noise to focus on a social interaction. You can maximize your chance of a comfortable, happy introduction by choosing a quiet place to meet the child. Look for a small classroom, the child's own home, a quiet hallway, or a less busy area of a park.
Have Someone Who Knows the Child Present
Any time an adult meets a child for the first time, it's better if the child is with a trusted adult. Most kids have been taught not to talk to strangers, so don't approach the kid without making sure Mom, Dad, an aide or teacher, or another grown up is around for safety and reassurance. These adults can also help the child through the social interaction with prompts and reminders, and in many cases, they will. Every interaction is a learning experience, and you and the other adult are helping the child learn the rules of this social interaction. Interact mainly with the child, but take your ques from the adult.
Adjust Your Expectations About the Child's Response
One of the key diagnostic criteria for autism is challenges in social skills, particularly in the area of non-verbal communication. This means that the child may not respond in the way you would ordinarily expect. He may not make eye contact or acknowledge you in any way, and he might even do something unexpected like just walk away. He may talk in a monotone voice. Don't interpret these as signs that the child isn't listening or interested. He may be very excited to meet you and need to back off a bit to handle that.
Don't Worry About Your Own Non-Verbal Signs
When you meet people, it's customary to send certain non-verbal signals. You smile, lean forward a little, and make eye contact. With a child, you may get down on her level and speak in a slightly higher tone. A lot of kids with autism struggle with processing non-verbal signs like this, and they often miss them entirely. Don't spend too much of your energy worrying about how you appear to the child. Instead, focus on making the experience as stress-free and successful as possible for both of you.
Ask About a Handshake
Some kids on the spectrum have what's called "tactile defensiveness," which means they can be over-sensitive to touch. Others may suffer from anxiety and worry about germs when touching someone's hand. Before you reach out for a handshake, ask, "May I shake your hand?" If the child says no, try to respect that decision without being offended. She is offering you what she can in that moment, and that may not include touching your hand.
Be Comfortable With Silence
In some kids with ASD, verbal processing may take time. Others may be mostly non-verbal. Either way, it's good to be comfortable with silence. If you ask a question, wait a very long time before you give up on an answer. This can feel a little uncomfortable at first, but it's really helpful for the child. Just sit with him and wait. You may be surprised when he provides a lovely answer a couple minutes after you asked the question.
Engage in the Activity the Child Is Doing
When you first meet the child, take a moment to observe what she's doing. Is she spinning a toy or playing with a ball? Is she reading a book or drawing? Look carefully at what has her interest right now. Then find a way to do that activity with her as you introduce yourself. Often, this will help capture her attention.
Relax and Be Yourself
Meeting a child with autism is much like meeting anyone; it's all about relaxing and putting the other person at ease. Just be yourself and enjoy the experience of getting to know someone on the autism spectrum.