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How to Interact with Kids with Autism

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San Diego mom Wendy Garafalo has a six-year-old son with autism and is on a mission to help people shift their perspectives.

Her website, I am LOVE, spreads the message of self love and not to care what others think. Perhaps others just need a shift in perspective to understand you!

The story behind the website and mission to shift perspectives started when her son Luca was four. “He noticed how words on glass doors and windows were written in reverse when seen from the other side. He then came home and wrote LOVE backward on our planter boxes. As his Mom, I thought and said, ‘that’s wrong. We’ll erase it and write it again.’ He informed me that it wasn’t wrong. He said, ‘I wrote it that way so the plants could read it from the inside.’

Luca is brilliant! But he can be misunderstood, especially by kids his age and he often ends up playing alone. “He doesn’t know how to interact or make friends,” explains Wendy, “when you ask him a question he doesn’t answer right away. Kids with autism don’t know how to filter through information, they notice sounds, smells, colors in the room and everything else first.”

With April being Autism Awareness month, Wendy wants to people to know how to best interact with children with autism. “Every kid is so different. I tell the moms in Luca’s class that he has autism. I encourage them to ask questions and talk about it. We can support each other,” explains Wendy.

Here are her top six tips for interacting with kids with autism. The spectrum is large and this might not work for everyone every time, but they will definitely help.

  1. Take the initiative to approach first and say hi.
  2. If you ask questions, give them space to answer and wait a minute. Remember it takes them longer to process the information. Don’t rush them.
  3. Find something you have in common. It can be something like, “we are both wearing jeans.” The common ground makes it easier for them to communicate. If they aren’t verbal, still talk and engage with them.
  4. Communicate clearly and simply. Don’t say things like “It’s raining cats and dogs.” They can be very literal and will look for cats and dogs falling from the sky.
  5. Stand up for the kid. Stand up to bullies. Did you know 63% of autistic kids get bullied? That needs to stop!
  6. Don’t be afraid, they are just like any other kid. They just want to be loved and have friends. They think differently or may use stimming (which can look like arm flapping for example) to calm their brains. Doctors now realize stimming is very natural and shouldn’t be repressed unless it is harmful to the child or others.

Wendy’s hope is that Luca will have a couple of close friends as he gets older. Statistically, one in 68 kids in on the spectrum and the number increases to one in 50 kids at school.

Wendy said when she first learned Luca had autism she was in denial, then grief, and then accepting of it and started taking him to different therapies. Wendy remembers how scary it was in the beginning. “The moment he wrote love backward it shifted for me. I don’t need to fix him, I’ll let him guide me.”

This article originally appeared in San Diego Moms Blog on April 2, 2018 and was authored by Deanne (Goodman) Gustafson.