Autism, or autism spectrum disorder (ASD), is a developmental disorder that starts in early childhood and continues throughout a person’s life. It can impact how a person socializes, communicates, behaves, and learns. Although most people with autism will share a few common traits, every person is different in how it affects them.
While many children and adults with autism have a desire to interact with others, it may feel overwhelming and cause frustration. That's why it's always best to try to be understanding, aim for kindness, and learn as much as you can about how to support them.
Below are a few tips on how to interact with friends, family members, and others with autism spectrum disorder.
Social settings can often be overwhelming and unbearable for a person with autism. Their brains are so busy trying to process every sound, sight, noise, and sensation. It can be painful!
Autism can cause a person to miss many social cues such as facial expressions and verbal signals that are commonly used while interacting. If a person with autism says something that appears rude or offensive, it is most likely a result of missing or not being able to read typical social cues.
- You can kindly and calmly say, “Please don’t say ‘You have spots on your face.’ People think that is rude.” That’s all it takes. Turning it into a teachable moment will help build their skills for future interactions.
- A well-known symptom of autism is having trouble making eye contact. Not because they do not want to connect, but because looking directly into your eyes may provide too much sensory stimulation. It is important to try to accept this.
- Pay close attention to signs of overstimulation; this can be either emotional or sensory. Ask how you can help to reduce the stimulation. Turn down the lights. Reduce the noise level or suggest that you both go to a quieter space.
You can help a person with autism to learn many missed communication skills through modeling, rehearsing, and reminders.
- Be patient! A person with autism spectrum disorder may not always be able to tell or explain what they are feeling. Your job is to listen carefully, speak plainly, and watch for signs of understanding.
- Depending on the person’s level of communication skills, it is usually appropriate to start by saying their name and then wait for a response such as a nod or a pause in movement.
- Use short and direct phrases instead of questions. It can be confusing if you say, “Can you get out your book and turn to page five?” Instead you would say, “Pick up your blue book please. Open it to page five.”
- You also want to show and model what you are asking them to do. When you say, “Pick up your blue book…,” you pick up your own book and hold it up then turn it to page five.
- Use very clear opening phrases to let the person know to pay attention such as “listen to this,” “pay attention,” or “remember to.”
- If there is a skill that you need to teach the person with autism, be clear and direct. You can say, “You are standing too close to me.” or “Your voice is too loud. When we are inside, we use a quieter voice.”
A person with autism spectrum disorder may behave in a way that is hard to understand. But remember that although it may seem like they are in “their own world,” most people with autism are aware and can understand when you are frustrated or annoyed with them.
Many people with autism experience high levels of ongoing anxiety. A common coping mechanism is called “stimming,” which is defined as repeatedly moving their body or objects to self-stimulate or provide comfort. This may involve hand-flapping, rocking, slapping their ears, or squeezing their hands together. It's best to try to ignore the stimming behavior when interacting with the person.
- Later in a calm setting, you can practice replacement behaviors with them, like finger tapping instead of hand flapping. Or chewing a safe object instead of a finger.
- Routines and regular schedules help a person with autism to reduce anxiety. Try to keep a regular pattern to your day and activities. It can be helpful to draw up a chart with activities labeled in the order you will do them. For example, “First you will eat your breakfast, second you will put your dish in the dishwasher, third you will go to the bathroom.”
Transitions between activities or events can be overwhelming and when you may notice the most meltdowns.
- Prepare for this by explaining when they will be moving to a new activity and the steps that will need to be taken.
- Providing regular breaks from activities or social settings is important. These breaks can allow the person with autism to focus on something that interests them. They have a chance to relax and process all that they have seen, heard, and felt. Small breaks throughout the day will reduce anxiety, improve attention spans, and the ability to learn new information.
A little understanding goes a long way
A person with autism may be depending on you to help guide them through a world that is very confusing and can be upsetting. When you try to understand how the world appears through the eyes of someone with autism, it can make it easier for you to be patient and calm.
The person with autism is usually not trying to give you a difficult time; they are just having a difficult time coping themselves.
Slow down. Pay attention to what the person is doing and how you can help reduce overstimulation. Speak calmly and directly. Most of all, try to see the person for who they are, not the behaviors that can appear strange and frustrating.