Parents and family members can struggle to build rapport with their child with autism, especially in a way that feels natural. “Connecting can be difficult, especially with a child who may seem to prefer to play alone, or who has limited language,” says Kenzie Strouse, M.A., BCBA, LBA, Assistant Clinical Director with Gateway Pediatric Therapy in Lansing. She suggests trying some simple “pairing” techniques used by ABA therapists.
“Pairing describes the process of how we build rapport with our learners,” says Strouse. “Pairing helps ABA therapists — or parents and caregivers — become associated with good things for the child with autism. Pairing increases the likelihood that the child will want to follow instructions.”
Strouse offers simple tips that, with a little effort and consistency, can help strengthen your rapport with your child.
Join in during playtime
In its simplest form, pairing involves engaging in what your child likes to do. “If they are not playing in a way that we recognize, as adults, we may try to change the play. Instead, follow their lead and do what they do,” Strouse explains.
If your child drives a car back and forth along the ground and makes car noises, join in. “This translates to ‘I like to do this too and I will join you in doing this,’” Strouse says.
As hard as it is, resist the urge to ask questions during play. “By asking questions, you pull them out of what they are doing. Instead, narrate, but limit questions because they can feel like demands,” she says. “It’s about changing the framework of how we present our language.”
Get down on your child’s level and engage in open body language. Show enthusiasm as you narrate.
“This can be uncomfortable for parents, especially if a child is not using a toy in the way it is meant to be used.” (Think pushing a car on its side rather than its wheels.) Eventually, you could model something new without requiring your child to join in, but praise them when they do,” Strouse suggests.
Be the keeper of the good stuff
If your child is building a train track or completing a puzzle, hold the pieces and offer them one by one. “When you can provide the thing that your child wants, you become associated with giving them what they need to move forward with their play,” Strouse says.
By establishing that you are someone who can continue to provide good things, you build trust that you are the person your child will want to be close to. “This is a huge stepping stone to bigger demands like potty training,” Strouse says. “Establish great rapport, and your child will recognize that good things will come from what they’re being asked to do.”
Start with five minutes before bed or first thing in the morning. “For some parents, pairing might feel uncomfortable and will take time.” You may find yourself forming a question in your mind, then pivoting to a statement about what your child is doing. In time, this will feel natural.
If your child doesn’t respond positively to your attempts at pairing — for example, they aren’t comfortable with you touching their toys — seek support from your ABA provider. They can offer additional ideas or provide parent training with your child present, Strouse says.
“Remember that pairing is a process that is ongoing. By trying these techniques throughout the day, and on a weekly and monthly basis, you may learn that it’s an effective way to enter your child’s world and engage with them.”
Gateway Pediatric Therapy offers best-in-class ABA therapy services at 11 locations in Michigan. For more information, visit gatewaypediatrictherapy.com.