How to Build a Great Relationship with an Autistic Toddler in 8 Steps



Recently, my toddler had a cold. And as I was up in the middle of the night, yet again, I was thinking about why people have children.

Why do they really? It makes no economic sense. You just waste hundreds of thousands of dollars, and get nothing back except a weekly visit and maybe grandchildren. You don’t sleep, you don’t eat proper food, you often give up your career, your freedom and certainly your sanity.

The first one, I understand. You are sheltered. You are happy and fuzzy and your niece is so cute when you hold her for twenty minutes and give her back as soon as she starts crying.

But then you find out about just why so many people get post-natal depression. You stop using words over two syllables and full sentences are a thing of the past. You start humming the Wiggles in all your spare time. You have no more spare time.

As the title of one of my favourite parenting books goes, it’s all joy and no fun. Yet people keep having kids. Humanity keeps existing. Why?

The joy is pretty great for sure. The joys of seeing them smile at you and reach for you, knowing you hold everything they want for happiness. The joys of seeing them learn and develop. First steps, first words, the way their face lights up when you come home. These all make it worthwhile. Also, grandchildren.

Often parents of children on the spectrum miss out on this, especially dads. They might never get the first words. They might show their child how to play with a toy five hundred times and be completely ignored. Every time they come home from work, not only does their little one not run towards them, he might actually run away. It’s no wonder they often hand them over to the therapist and concentrate on their other kids – the ones that actually want them there.

This was our situation for a long time. While my son loved being with me, he used to completely ignore his father. So I got all the rewards, and my husband would do all the work and get nothing for it.

Yesterday, when my husband came home from work, my son ran towards him and asked him for a hug. Then when he tried to eat dinner, Michael interrupted him every five mouthfuls to ask for a carry or more hugs. This is not a strange thing and we have gotten used to it over the past few weeks – my husband is now the favourite parent. And this is how we got there

Step 1: Give Them Good Things


Little kids are not complicated. They like chocolate, they like cookies, they like cartoons, and they like toys that go ‘ping’.

This is great because as a parent (and this works just as well for all other relatives – grandparents take note!) you can take advantage of this.

So start by ‘pairing’ yourself with the good things. Don’t chase the child around the room, just grab something they really like – their favourite food, bubbles, an iPad – and play it. For a relationship to grow, they have to come to you. Don’t make any demands from her, just reward her for coming to you by playing that Wiggles song.

If she wants to leave, that’s fine. If she doesn’t want to touch you at first, let her just sit next to you. You are not forcing him to do anything, just rewarding him for gracing you with his presence.

If she does leave though, the toy stays with you. The iPad is turned off. Don’t let him take his favourite car away to the couch and play with it on his own there. Only give her a small piece of her favourite cookie, not the entire one. Right now, if he wants it, he has to be near you. Preferably on your lap.

This step is the most important one and if you like, you can stop at this. It usually takes about a month before your little one will regularly come up to you for treats and is comfortable enough to stick around, but do it as long as it takes.

Step 2: Get Involved in Therapy


I know that doing therapy with a toddler on the spectrum is one of the most frustrating, difficult and will-sapping things you can do. Good therapists are not taught, they are born that way and if it’s not your personality type, you can’t change that. But research shows that the more involved parents (and extended family) are in a child’s therapy, the better they will go.

At the start of therapy you may be feeling overwhelmed, and you may have other children that need your attention. It’s fine, many parents can’t even bear to think about therapy, look at a folder, or read a report for the first six months.

Eventually though feeling does come back to your soul.

Once your little one is on track and learning, and used to therapy, you may feel better about joining in. Even two sessions a week can help you get to know the programs, and give you some valuable bonding time. Weekends are great because you can take turns doing therapy (my husband and I do it all the time), doing other chores, and save a lot of money not paying for double time.

It will mean you will get a relationship much faster, and it will mean your little one will behave much better around you. You can also generalize their achievements much faster since you are with them all the time.

It’s also a fact that other therapists will get sick, go on holidays, and have exams so you will either need to get used to them missing lots of sessions, or be able to fill in yourself.

Step 3: Use Only One or Two Words at a Time


One of the most distinguishing features of autism is language delay. My son has been doing therapy for eight months and he has learned about ten commands, and I’m pretty sure his entire receptive vocabulary is considerably under 50 words.

Maybe my experience is on the extreme end, but I do find he responds better when he actually understands what I’m doing.

It is very natural to talk to children in a certain way. You narrate everything you see ‘oh, look at that birdie, doesn’t he sound pretty? Can you see the birdie?’ It is natural to ask questions and try to repeat the same thing over and over in different ways, ‘Do you want a car? Isn’t that a cool car?! Wow, look, this car is red and this one is blue’.

I know I like the sound of my own voice (hence, blog) but I’ve noticed everyone talking this way around their kids.

Autism is, of course, a spectrum. Some kids will have very advanced language skills and you will know if yours is one of them. For the most part though they may be extremely delayed, and extremely confused when you talk at them like this.

When I first started therapy with Michael I really had to practise the ‘one or two words’ thing. He drank his milk and I would point to it and say ‘milk’. Not ‘wow isn’t that milk yummy, wow you’re drinking it so quickly’. Just ‘milk’.

He decided he wanted to play with a ball and I would say ‘ball’. He wanted to play with a slinky and I would say (in a very high and unnaturally loud voice) ‘slinky! Streeeetchy!’. I watched some YouTube videos on how to do this so I got a weird American accent but it did work.

Step 4: Get In Their Face 


This one only works if you also have something they want. They want a grape. You offer it to them, but only if they first point to it/reach for it/let you have a turn at the jigsaw puzzle.

The key is, you do this gradually. You don’t deliberately try to make your child hate you – you will do this later when they enter their teenage years. Just see where they are comfortable having you (maybe 1m away, maybe less) and push them slightly.

My favourite way to do this with Michael is through social games and songs. Things like ‘the itsy bitsy spider’, ‘row row row your boat’ and flying him around like an aeroplane. He loves ‘Open Shut Them’ at the moment so I will sing it to him, he will look deep into my eyes (yes I do melt into a puddle but I hold it together) and then tickle him as a reward for staying with me so long.

He also loves playing hide and seek, and he’s very receptive to songs when he’s in a swing (and can’t escape, muhahahaha).

I know that when I started most of these things with him, he hated them. He used to try to run off every time I picked him up to play ‘Giddy Up’ or ‘Humpty Dumpty’. He cried if the therapists tried to throw him in the air.

These days it’s his favourite way of passing the time. With me, with his dad, with all his therapists.

The key is we are always pushing him just to the edge of where he’s comfortable, then rewarding him for allowing us to do so, and stepping back. It’s pretty exhausting but so many of his favourite things started out as a new ‘social game’ that he hated and wanted to run away from.

Step 5: Ignore the Tantrums


When you first start this, there will be tantrums and meltdowns. You should start slowly and go from a comfortable place but each time you want to get a little closer, he will scream. He will kick. He will be uncomfortable. He will make you feel like the worst parent on earth for making him do this.

If you step back immediately, you will make this worse, so please please please don’t do this. If you are tired that day, if you feel like you’re about to give in, stop the entire thing. It is better to just leave her alone in the corner that day than to have her kick and scream, and then leave her in the corner.

If on the other hand you feel stronger than Superman and the world is your oyster, do it. Keep going, keep trying, and ignore the screaming. It’s usually best to stay nearby during the meltdown and make sure your toddler doesn’t hurt themselves. That is all you should be doing though. No hugs, no holding, no picking up, no patting, no ‘oh no dear, are you ok, here’s a car, can you see the cool car?’.

Even once she finishes the tantrum, you still do not give her a reward. Offer it again, and if she does something she has already done with you previously (for example if you are right at the start, maybe just come up to you for the reward and nothing else) then you give it to her.

You should also learn from the tantrum. If she is screaming that hard, maybe your demand was too hard, and you should simplify it. Just don’t do it straight away, otherwise you are rewarding the tantrum.

Remember, one of the most important rules is no rewards for a tantrum. Ever.

Step 6: Reward, reward, reward


Much more important than ignoring tantrums, is rewarding your little one for not throwing one. Yes, we are engaging in rampant bribery, but you knew that in Step 1. You will fade this later.

Every time she comes up to you, give her some chocolate. If she lets you, just hold her in your lap while she watches her favourite cartoon. Buy so many toys that you need to get a new house just for storage, Anything that may interest your child should be in the house, and in your vicinity. They should expect that coming to you will have a great consequence for them. Yes, you may do something unpleasant like give her a hug or kiss him on the cheek but you also have the most awesome light-up cube in the world.

I especially like to reward him if he controls himself and lets me do something he is uncomfortable with. If he leaves the park without throwing a tantrum for example. I reward him for these things and gradually make the rewards smaller with time, as it gets easier, or make him do more things to get the reward. Put on a jacket without screaming, then without flinching, then actually helping me. Put on his shoes as well. The constant fading is important so you are not stuck forever rewarding the same thing, and dependent on bribery for every piece of good behaviour.

Step 7: Never Lose Your Temper. Also, Learn to Meditate


There are many things that a toddler will do that will drive you absolutely batshit crazy. And with special needs this list grows fivefold.

But you have to remember that this is not actually all happening just to you. It is likely they are not deliberately trying to drive you to an early grave so they can inherit your entire collection of Fisher Price.

I once read a book by a child on the severe end of the autism spectrum. He wrote that the thing he most wants in the world is a hug, but when he gets it, he becomes hugely uncomfortable and runs away.

This is so sad. And it is something you are trying to help your little one with. Great thing is, you can. Gradually. But if you get angry at them for something they have no control over (hey, you will, all of us have) you will feel so awful five minutes later that you will want to crawl under the bed and never come out. If you are feeling like you are reaching breaking point, just put off your ‘relationship’ program to another day and leave them alone.

Step 8: Give It Time and Take it Slowly


The most important ingredient in any relationship is time. It might take you six months of constant trying and failing, and baby steps, to get to the stage where they run to you with open arms. It might even take longer. But the joy of knowing that your child is happy when they are with you, that you are not just important to them as the provider of food and shelter, but as the provider of hugs and kisses, is so worth it. Now go forth and conquer!

Facebook Comments
#, #, #, #


  1. Autistic kids in general can’t be rewarded not to have a meltdown. That’s just the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard. Those tantrums, those meltdowns are fear and anxiety driven. Bribery will get you nowhere. I have a seven year old in the spectrum. He never had tantrums or meltdowns when younger, but boy, do we have them now. Fear and anxiety, having to tow the line all day at school make for some spectacular and often big meltdowns once he is at home. His safe place. It’s uncontrollable, it’s terrifying for him. Rewards? Yeah, don’t think so.

    1. Hi Keely, I try to think at least five ridiculous things before breakfast, so trust me, this particular one isn’t ridiculous!

      What I meant, and maybe didn’t explain well, is get them used to whatever it is that causes the meltdown, gradually.

      To explain. Say my son hates and has a meltdown at…baths. He used to do that (you see i have a LOT of experience with this stuff, he had meltdowns are EVERYTHING!). I find the point at which he is comfortable and I work backwards from there. So for example I might put him in the room with a bath, where he is slightly uncomfortable but OK, and reward him for going in for a bit. I will then let him out. Then I will do it again. And again, until he is completely comfortable being in the room with the bath. Then I will make him stand next to it, and he is again slightly uncomfortable at this but ok. And I do that over and over until he is comfortable being there. Then make him touch the surface of the bath with his finger. Repeat until comfortable (this might take weeks or it might be within the same day, with us it only took a couple of days for the entire ‘program’). Then get in but only for a second, knowing he will be taken out again immediately. Repeat over and over. Then leave him in for five seconds. You get the general idea.

      The way this works is that just because he is afraid or anxious of a situation, doesn’t mean he has to stay afraid of it for the rest of his life.

      To use myself as an example, say I’m 17 and I’m terrified of driving. I mean, think about it, it’s a pretty well founded fear. Do I give up? No, I might have techniques for helping me deal with it. I might start practising with an instructor in a quiet place and very gradually move out until I’m driving on highways etc. I have my own motivation of course there, I might not need to be rewarded for every little step (since I’m not two, you know?) – my reward is that I get to drive to places and that’s a great skill to have. Or if I really hate it I might reward myself – after each lesson, which might be very painful and stressful for me, I reward myself with a hot chocolate from Lindt (hmm…I suddenly find myself feeling very anxious about driving…maybe I need to fix that?).

      Of course the actual techniques used will change according to what causes the anxiety. You certainly don’t just ignore it, make them do it anyway, see them scream, and then reward them for trying. There might be more sophisticated techniques you can use with a 7 year old than you would with a 2 year old (yes I have a gift for stating the obvious). I would turn to a professional at my ABA centre or a child psychologist or someone in special education to help with coping strategies. I’m sure it might involve modelling stressful situations individually and helping them through it, or helping with the underlying issue (for example, if they are anxious due to interaction, maybe work on the social skills).

      The system as a whole though has worked, not just for me, it has been proven to work, over and over, with kids at different stages in their lives or on the spectrum. I’ve used it very successfully with myself, sometimes without realising it. It’s only common sense. But if you are having trouble with things like that, then definitely seek help! It must be very hard to toe the line all day at school, and that’s why children get support for things like that.

      Good luck with it!


Add yours