Help Me Grow | United Way of Utah County

Learning to “Pair” with Children with Autism

In 2018, I started working with children on the Autism Spectrum as a Registered Behavioral Technician. Communication is critically important for children during the fastest growth phase of their lives. Children with autism are often not able to communicate as effectively as children not “on the spectrum”.

At first, it was extremely difficult. I caught a glimpse of what it must be like for the parents of these precious little kids. Children with autism have problems with input/output. Some are completely nonverbal and act out physically as they attempt to communicate. However, as I built trust with these unique individuals they grew exponentially. The tool I learned, and now use daily, is called “pairing.”

Pairing is the process of building mutual trust. On a macro level, pairing is an unwritten social contract we conform to, where we extend and accept trust for interactions. This extension of trust is based on solid input/output communication. As adults, we do this every day when we interact with our communities. To varying degrees, children with autism are not able to communicate or interpret this input/output. What follows is the weird behaviors we experience working with kids on the spectrum. These behaviors happen because something short-circuits in the communication, and the results are sometimes catastrophic.

On a micro level, we also conform to unwritten rules of interpersonal contact and behaviors to build trust, aka, we communicate more intimately with people with whom we are close. This is harder for kids on the spectrum because personal interactions require more exact communication and interpretation of input/output. We “pair” with these kids first to build trust and establish rules for communicating with them. It is hard and takes time. When it happens, though, it’s like magic and most of the weird behaviors lessen and eventually disappear.

Pairing is something I do at the beginning of each session with my clients. Even if I have worked with them for a long time, trust must be reestablished before anything can be taught. I start by just being in the same room as the child. After a while, I start playing next to them, commenting on what they are doing without fully engaging. I then begin to play with them, continuing to comment on the good things they are doing. If they tell me no or move away from me, I start over. When I have successfully paired with them, showing them that they are important to me, they begin to trust me and their weird (what we call maladaptive) behaviors decrease over time. Imagine your significant other left for a weeklong business trip. When they return, it takes a bit to resync. For kids on the spectrum, it is like they have been in a foreign country for a week where no one spoke their language, and they had to accomplish tasks that required other people.

Children with autism are referred to as being “on the spectrum.” This means their abilities to communicate are different, making it difficult to consistently pair. To adapt to this, we try to maintain relationships with a few clients. One of my cute clients is just now starting to say some words and does not play with toys. Pairing with them looks slightly different, but the idea is the same. At the beginning of every session, they run inside and jump on my trampoline. I tell them gently that they are awesome. Eventually, I ask if I can jump with them and they say, “jump with me.” I jump with them, tickle them, and repeat the noises they make with a tool called mirroring. They giggle and then start babbling to me. They turn toward me and focus on me. That is how I know we have successfully paired.

After being paired, I run goals with the kids. I help them learn new words as they repeat the sounds I make. I then associate the sounds with an object or an action. I teach them how to ask for what they want/need using words, sign language, and/or pictures. I also teach them social skills like saying hi and beginning to have simple conversations. None of this is possible without pairing first. Sometimes, something will trigger them and the pairing will break. When that happens, I start the pairing process over again. For some kids, this happens multiple times an hour. This can be incredibly draining. For parents, this can seem impossible some days. However, pairing works, and it is satisfying to gain their trust.

For parents who have children on the spectrum, hang in there. I know it is so hard some days and sometimes seems impossible to get through to them. If the only thing you can do with them some days is pair, that is enough. You are doing a good job, and you are not alone! When you use pairing to establish mutual trust, your kids feel hope. With this hope and mutual trust, much can be accomplished!

Here is some additional information about pairing.

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