When autism was first recognized as a disorder back in the 1940s, people thought that the parents were to blame for their child’s withdrawn behavior. Psychoanalysts thought that cold and detached parenting was the reason behind an autistic child having trouble communicating socially. However, today we know this is not true and there are biological shortcomings of the body and brain development that are responsible for these social deficits.
An important part of helping children on the spectrum with these issues of social interaction is being responsive to the child’s behaviors. This includes making comments or doing things that build on your child’s current interest and actions to support what they are already trying to do. For example, if your child is playing with a ball, you might point to the ball and say, ‘it’s a ball,’ opposed to taking the ball away and asking your child to say ball before giving it back.
Dr. Michael Siller, co-director of the Hunter College Autism Center and Dr. Marian Sigman, co-founder and co-director of the UCLA Center for Autism Research and Treatment (CART), have done research where they show that parents using this responsive method have children who develop better language and social skills. Another study assigned half a group of parents to a one-year long intervention program where they worked one-on-one with a speech therapist to improve their abilities and skills on understanding their child’s subtle social cues. This program was made to help parents interact in a more responsive way to their child. The other half of parents continued receiving their usual community services and, as expected, the parents who went through the program were more responsive and saw more positive results in their children’s social skills as well.
There is a lack of research done on parent-child interaction, since some people are afraid that parents will feel that they are being blamed. However, working on parenting skills and assigning blame are two very different things. This is an important area of research to continue to explore as it can have very promising results for children on the spectrum.