Interacting with someone with autism can feel frustrating for both of you. Autism can present communication, socialization, and behavioral challenges that can make you feel like you don’t know what to say or how to respond.
The secret is to always try to understand, to aim for kindness, and to learn as much as you can about how to interact more effectively with someone with autism.
Autism spectrum disorder is defined as a neurological and developmental disorder that starts in childhood and continues throughout a person’s life. It will impact how a person interacts, communicates, and learns. Although most people with autism will share a few common traits, every person is different in how autism affects them.
Social interactions with someone with autism
People with autism will often have 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.
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. Just a gentle reminder of the social norm they missed.
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!
Pay close attention to signs of overstimulation; this can be either emotional or sensory, and try to help reduce the stimulation. Ask if you can help. Turn down the lights. Reduce the noise level or suggest that you both go to a quieter space.
How to communicate with someone with autism
Be patient! A person with autism 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 waiting 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.”
You can help a person with autism to learn many missed communication skills through modeling, rehearsing, and reminders.
Behavior Challenges with Autism
A person with autism 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 response is “stimming.” This is defined as repeatedly moving your body or objects to self-stimulate or provide comfort. This may involve hand-flapping, rocking, slapping their ears, or squeezing their hands together. This is a coping mechanism. Try to ignore the behavior when you see stimming and respond to the person.
Later in a calm setting, you can practice replacement behaviors 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.”
Transition Tips for Autism
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 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.