Following the Lead of an Autistic Child

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Following the lead of an autistic child involves understanding and appreciating their unique interests and communication styles. We all are more focused on things that we enjoy.  We are motivated by our passions.  This is no different for young autistic children.  Sometimes, the things they love are very obvious, and other times we really need to be a detective to figure it out.  

Understanding and supporting autistic children can be both a challenging and rewarding journey. One effective strategy is the OWL approach, developed by the Hanen Center, which stands for Observe, Wait, and Listen. This method emphasizes the importance of following the child’s lead to foster better communication and connection.

autistic child

The OWL approach is rooted in the belief that every child has a unique way of interacting with the world. For autistic children, this means recognizing and respecting their individual communication styles and interests.

The O in OWL stands for Observe

This first step is about paying close attention to the child’s actions, expressions, and interests. By observing, caregivers and educators can discover what captivates the child’s attention and how they express themselves, whether it’s through words, sounds, movements, or other means. 

One specific aspect is Noticing Non-Verbal Communication: You see a child lining up their toys meticulously. This could indicate a preference for order and structure, a common trait in many autistic children.

Another aspect is Spotting Subtle Interests: Maybe the child frequently looks at pictures of dogs in books. This observation might reveal a specific interest in dogs, which can be used to engage the child in activities.

The W in OWL stands for Wait

Patience is key in the OWL approach. Waiting allows the child to initiate interaction in their own time. This step is crucial because it gives the child a sense of control and the opportunity to communicate in their preferred manner.

One way is by giving the child time to respond: After asking the child a question or initiating an interaction with them, you should pause and give them ample time to process and respond in their own way, rather than immediately filling the silence or prompting them again.

Another way is by Observing Choice Making: When presenting a child with options for activities, you wait to see which one they gravitate towards without immediate guidance, allowing them to make a choice based on their own preference.

The L in OWL stands for Listen

Truly listening means understanding not just the words, but also the intent and emotion behind them. For non-speaking children, it’s about interpreting their gestures, facial expressions, and other non-verbal cues.  You know, all those things we talk about with multi-modal communication.

One aspect  is understanding unique communication styles: The child may use a specific sound or gesture to indicate a need or desire. Listening in this context means recognizing and understanding these unique forms of communication.

Another aspect is paying attention to repetitive speech: If the child repetitively talks about a particular subject, listening carefully helps you understand their interests and how they express themselves, which can be a gateway to deeper engagement.

Benefits of Following the Lead of an Autistic Child

By employing the OWL approach, caregivers can create a supportive and understanding environment where the child feels seen and heard. This not only enhances communication but also strengthens the bond between the child and the caregiver or teacher. It encourages the child to be more open and engaged, facilitating learning and development.  Here are some benefits of following the child’s lead when you can: 

Enhancing Self-Esteem: Respecting and valuing a child’s interests and communication methods boost their self-esteem, fostering confidence in expression and engagement.

Reducing Frustration and Anxiety: Following the child’s lead minimizes frustration and anxiety associated with communication challenges, creating a more comfortable environment.

Encouraging Independence: Empowering children to lead in activities and communication encourages decision-making and expression, promoting autonomy and self-reliance.

Improving Learning and Cognitive Skills: Engaging in activities aligned with the child’s interests enhances learning and cognitive development, facilitating better absorption of information.

Strengthening Social-Emotional Skills: Interacting on the child’s terms allows for effective teaching and modeling of social-emotional skills within meaningful contexts.

Promoting Language Development: For verbal children, following their lead in conversations stimulates more complex language use. For non-speaking children, understanding unique communication methods reduces frustration.

Following an Autistic Child’s Lead in the Classroom

You might be saying “well, Tara, how on earth do I follow the child’s lead when I have a classroom full of students with different needs and interests”?  

There are ways to combine routine and structure with these strategies regarding following the child’s lead and play-based strategies in a classroom setting.  Rather than following individual children around as they lead you to whatever they want…which is what some people think of when you say “child-led” or “play-based”, it’s more of a hybrid approach. 

For example, when the child comes to the table or area to work with an adult, offer a couple of toys or activities and see what they gravitate toward.  This could be a play-based activity, like a Fisher-Price toy set or toy cars.  Then, implement the OWL strategy. 

This could be the same if you are in the play area in the classroom with a couple of students.  As you monitor that area, take time to observe using the OWL method and take some notes.  This is going to give you a lot of ideas to use during other parts of the day such as 1:1 or small group time, as well as circle time.

The OWL approach from the Hanen Center offers a compassionate and effective way to connect and follow the lead of autistic children. By observing, waiting, and listening, we can enter their world, understand their perspective, and provide the support they need to thrive.

If they don’t learn the way you teach, teach the way they learn” by Jacquie McTaggart

Listen to podcast episode 50, all about the OWL approach here

If you use visual supports in your classroom or home, you are going to want to sign up for this free Visual Supports Starter Set ASAP! Click here to have one sent to your inbox. Also, be sure to read more about visual supports and how they can help autistic children here.

a photo showing several visual supports for young children with autism

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