Being able to relate to people with autism requires effective communication – including listening and being open-minded. In this article, we’ll discuss a few basic concepts you should understand, tips for smoother communication, and a few things you should avoid if you want to succeed in relating to those with autism.
The Basics: General Challenges For People With Autism
First, it’s important to have a basic understanding of what people with autism are dealing with and the general challenges that they – and their families – face.
Generally speaking, people with autism will be less socially developed than their peers without autism. For this reason, you’ll want to avoid making assumptions about the social skills and intentions of someone with autism until you know them as a person—rude or antisocial behaviors may be wholly unintentional, rather than a sign of dislike or indication that they don’t want to socialize.
People with autism can be especially sensitive to noise and other sensations, making them uncomfortable in environments you might consider normal. This can add another complexity to interactions in many common social environments, where such overstimulation is common. For this reason, it’s often best to control the environment when communicating with someone with autism. It’s usually best to simply ask directly whether noises or lights are distracting or uncomfortable.
Tips For Relating To People With Autism
Respect physical boundaries
While many neurotypical individuals don’t appreciate casual invasions of physical space, it’s especially important that you stay aware of personal space when trying to engage someone with autism. Paradoxically, people with autism often have trouble judging personal space and may make you uncomfortable by approaching too closely while speaking, making it even more important that you be careful.
Look for the individual, not the symptoms
You need to remember that any person with autism of any age is more than the sum of their symptoms. They’re a person first and foremost, with individual interests and personality traits. How they interact with you may be filtered through a different view of the world, but that filter isn’t the person.
Be direct with people with autism
While not all people with autism struggle with figurative language, enough do that it’s still best to be direct when possible. Avoid using metaphors and idioms as much as possible.
This can be one of the greatest challenges when first trying to communicate with someone with autism, as so much of neurotypical communication is centered around euphemisms and indirect language in the interest of being polite. This is also part of why people with autism can come across as rude; they struggle with the euphemisms you might consider polite.
Listen and think first
There’s a world of difference between refusal and confusion, rejection and difficulty communicating. Make sure you pay close attention to what’s being said, and interpret appropriately. Your first assumption may be wrong, as it’s going to be based upon a lifetime of interactions with neurotypical people. A straight to-the-point “No.” or a head shake could mean a lot of things from an individual with autism, where you’d assume a terse rejection from someone without.
Try to be helpful
Socializing may not come as naturally to children with autism as those without, but that doesn’t mean they don’t desire interactions. Adults with autism often understand their own limitations, and appreciate assistance in communicating their desires. Be patient and offer suggestions for ways to communicate more clearly or effectively.
Stay alert, considerate and adaptive
For individuals who are prone to meltdowns and similar difficulties, it’s important that you take the time to identify their triggers and warning signs and work within that framework. It’s not a matter of walking on eggshells or coddling; you just need to appreciate what they struggle with and be nice about it.
Truly Relating To People With Autism
Don’t force the issue. People with autism can be truly antisocial or dislike you. It may be personal, or it may not be. What you don’t want to do is assume all deviance from neurotypical behavior is a problem to be corrected, and push and push where you’re unwelcome. It can be tricky, of course, to identify the difference between an honest wish to withdraw and difficulty socializing. Be patient, just as you would with an antisocial neurotypical individual.
The biggest challenge with relating to those with autism is getting in the right mindset and opening up to the person. When you make an effort to look past symptoms and really get to know them, you’ll unlock so much more room for getting to know and relating to those with autism.
To learn more call the Sarah Dooley Center for Autism at 804-521-5571.