Carola is a disability advocate with many years of experience working in the disability community. She is also a freelance writer.
As a writer who focuses on people with disabilities, I know that talking to a person with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) may seem daunting for people who have not had the opportunity to meet someone on the spectrum. Here are some tips and things to know that can help make a conversation more comfortable for everyone.
The Definition of ASD
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, autism spectrum disorder is a cognitive disability that can cause severe communication, social, and behavioral changes. Autism is a complex neurological disorder that affects individuals differently with mild to severe symptoms.
Their communication abilities vary from non-verbal to high functioning. Some people have benefited from early intervention services such as therapies that improve life and social skills.
People with autism have some common traits such as repetitive or restricted activities, abnormal sensory responses, and poor social skills. Autistic people like routines and may become anxious or angry when their routines are disrupted.
To learn more about autism, I recommend the book Thinking in Pictures: My Life with Autism by Temple Grandin.
Dr. Grandin, who is on the spectrum, is a prominent speaker and author on autism and animal behavior. She is a professor of Animal Science at Colorado State University. Her visual thinking led her to create innovative and humane methods of handling livestock. There is also a movie about her life called Temple Grandin.
Social Deficits in People with Autism
People with autism spectrum disorder have deficits in social interaction skills and relating to others such as:
- A lack of awareness of the presence of other people
- Not making or maintaining eye contact
- Difficulty starting and sustaining conversations
- A tendency to repeat phrases over and over
- Problems in reading body language correctly and picking up communication cues
- Overly focussed on specific areas that interest them
- A lack of motivation to relate to peers or to become involved in social activities
- Difficulty in understanding other people's viewpoints
- Do not like to be touched
- Are distracted or may experience sensory overload in environments with background noise, strong smells, flashing lights or multicolors and patterns
When people with autism were growing up, these issues probably interfered with their abilities to interact and relate to others. They may experience these issues:
- Ridicule, bullying, and rejection by their peers
- A bad reputation as strange or shy
- A lack of social engagement with others and few friendships
- A lack of close, quality relationships
- Conflict with their peers
Conversations work best in quieter venues without distracting nearby activity and backgrounds. Here are some things to keep in mind when talking to people who have autism.
Make Sure You Have Their Attention
Get their attention before instructing them or asking a question. Signs that they are focused are different in each autistic individual. According to The National Autistic Society, using their names in the conversation demonstrates that you are talking to them directly.
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Make Sure Your Conversation Is Clear
Use literal, concrete, and clear language in concise terms. Avoid the use of slang, sarcasm, innuendos, and idioms. These types of communication may be confusing to a person with autism.
If you are asking a question, wait for the autistic person to respond. The autistic person may need some time to process the information before answering. Your patience is needed at these times. Do not assume that the autistic person did not hear or understand you. Give as much specific detail as possible without overwhelming them with too much info.
Stick To Specific Topics
Focus on one area in which you have general knowledge, if possible, and follow it. The conversation will go more smoothly if the comments you make are a follow-up to what was previously said. Try to avoid stating the obvious, which may be interpreted as condescension. An autistic person sometimes has difficulty following the flow of the conversation and comprehending what has been said.
Talk about the autistic person's interests. People with autism tend to focus on a limited number of specific hobbies or topics that interest them, so try to divert the conversation to these areas. However, you may need to interrupt a conversation with an autistic person if there is vital information to be shared such as telling the person about a family emergency.
Do Not Use Terms of Endearment
Avoid words that are too familiar, such as “sweetie” or “honey,” or personal descriptions such as “adorable” or “cute.” These terms may be well-meant terms of endearment but can be seen as disrespectful, condescending, or demeaning.
During an emotional conversation, it may be acceptable to say things like: “Everything will be OK,” or: “Well done.” Doing so can encourage the autistic person to become more open.
Address Them as Adults
An autistic grownup should be addressed as an adult, not a child. People with ASD struggle with social interaction, but this characteristic is not related to their cognitive abilities. They may understand what is said in a conversation but may have difficulty expressing a verbal response.
Avoid Repeating or Rephrasing Your Words
People with autism will probably understand what is said. Avoid unnecessary repetition or rephrasing your previous comments unless they ask for it. Autistic people are often good at picking up details such as people’s names, but they must make an effort to do so. They can have difficulty discerning and picking up the correct information.
Expect Interruptions in The Conversation
The autistic person may reply to a question before you finished stating it. If they have anticipated your question correctly, you do not need to continue what you were saying.
Include The Person with Autism in Social Interactions
Sometimes, people in social situations ignore autistic people in the room and talk about them as if they were not there. Avoid falling into this trap by trying to include people with autism in the conversations.
Avoid Triggering Sensory Overload
Too much information at once can cause an overload. People with autism find it difficult to filter out less important information. Say less and repeat key words and phrases.
According to Autism Speaks, the senses of people with autism are out of sync in a way that may be painful for them. A sense of smell can be heightened and sensitive to strong odors such as cleaning products or paint. Their hearing may be hyperacute. A loud and visually distracting environment can interfere with their ability to concentrate.
The book Connecting with The Autism Spectrum by Casey "Remrov" Vormer offers useful tips on how to talk and listen to neurodiverse adults in schools, work, and social situations
Conversations with autistic people can be challenging. They may not maintain eye contact or answer questions appropriately. They may interrupt or keep shifting the topic to something that intensely interests them. People who want to talk to an autistic person should be aware of these characteristics and accept their differences unconditionally.
What is Autism? Autism Speaks
What is Autism Spectrum Disorder? Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Communicating, National Autistic Society
About Autism, Autism Speaks Canada
Tips for Talking to Adults on the Autism Spectrum, May Institute
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.
© 2013 Carola Finch