How to Relate to an Autistic Person

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You may know an autistic person, and want to understand this individual and become friends. This can be challenging because autism (including Asperger’s and PDD-NOS) is characterized by varying degrees of social skills and communication differences. Autistic individuals have experiences that may be very different from yours, but there are still ways you can relate to each other.

Part1 Learning About Autism

Recognize the emotional challenges autistic people face. To relate to someone requires that you know where this person is coming from, so it is very helpful to learn about the challenges an autistic person faces. They may have trouble reading your emotions, or they might read your emotions but not be sure why you feel that way. In addition to this confusion, sensory issues and introversion are common, so socializing can be tiring. But the sense of a connection with you is still likely very important to them.[2] To learn more about the symptoms and challenges of being autistic.
Learn about the social challenges. You may see in your friend a tendency to say or do things that are socially inappropriate at the time, such as saying something out loud most people have learned to keep in their heads, getting too close to someone else, or cutting in line.[3] This is because understanding social rules can be difficult for autistic people.

  • It’s okay to explain a social rule or tell them that an action of theirs upset you. For example, “This isn’t the back of the line, so we shouldn’t cut in here. I see the back of the line over there.” Autistic people often have strong senses of fairness, so explaining how a social rule fits into these values may help.[4]
  • Assume that they mean well. Autistic people usually do not mean to be offensive. They don’t want to hurt you or anyone else; they just don’t understand how to respond.
Learn about the behaviors of autistic individuals. Autistic people tend to display a variety of atypical behaviors. For example, autistic individuals may:

  • Echo things someone else said. This is called ‘echolalia’.
  • Talk about a topic for a long period of time, without recognizing when others have lost interest.
  • Speak honestly, and sometimes bluntly.
  • Interject with statements that seem irrelevant to the current discussion, such as pointing out a pretty flower.
  • Not respond to their own names.
Understand the importance of routine. For many autistic individuals, routines are an important aspect of their lives. Because of this, you can better relate to an autistic person by keeping in mind that routine may matter a great deal to them; you can help this individual by making sure their routine stays on track throughout the day.

  • If you have become part of this person’s routine and then break it, it could be very upsetting to your friend.
  • Try to keep in mind their perspective as you interact with him. Keep in mind that just because you may not value routine that much, and so don’t care much whether routine is deviated from or not, to them it may be a huge deal if you deviate from routine.
Recognize the power of special interests. Special interests are similar to a passion in non-autistic people, but are even stronger for an autistic person. Your friend may engage in their special interest(s) often, and love to talk about it. See if their interest area overlaps with yours, and use it as a tool to connect.

  • Some autistic people have more than one special interest at once.
Get to know this person’s strengths, differences, and challenges. Every autistic person is different, and so it’s important to understand them as a unique person.

  • Difficulty reading tone of voice and body language is typical of autistic people, so they may need extra explanation.
  • Autistic people usually have slightly different body language, including an avoidance of eye contact and frequent stimming (repetitive self-soothing behaviors). Recognize your friend’s own personal “normal.”
  • Autistic people often have sensory issues. They may react differently, or even adversely, to strong odors (such as tuna), unexpected touches, loud noises, or certain textures (to name a few).
Rid yourself of stereotypes about autistic individuals. There is a false stereotype about autism, most likely (unintentionally) propagated in part by the movie Rain Man, in which it is thought that most autistic individuals have super-human cognitive abilities (such as the ability to near instantly count how many toothpicks fell on the floor).[5]

  • In fact, such autistic savants are not all that common.

Part2 Behaving Around an Autistic Person

See both the person and the disability. On one hand, not seeing the person may lead you to introduce them as “my autistic friend,” stereotype them, or treat them like a child. On the other, refusing to acknowledge the disability and not accommodating their needs is also unhelpful. Strike a balance by treating their differences as natural, and overall unremarkable.

  • Don’t tell people that your friend is autistic unless they have given you permission.
  • If they mention a need, accommodate it without making it a big deal. They may be surprised at your graciousness, and they will likely appreciate your being understanding.
Be clear about how you feel and what you want. Autistic people may not pick up hints or cues, so it’s best to directly state your feelings.[7] This helps eliminate confusion on both ends, and that way if the autistic person has upset you, they have the opportunity to make amends and learn from it.

  • “I’m feeling really down about my day at work, and I need some quiet time right now. We can talk later.”
  • “Asking Jamal out was really difficult for me, and I was so surprised that he said yes! I can’t wait for our date on Friday. Do you want to help me pick out what to wear?”
Accept any quirks and oddities, without trying to change them. Autistic people tend to move, speak, and interact in ways that are slightly offbeat.[8] This is likely true of your friend. If so, keep in mind that it is part of who they are, and if you are going to be their friend, it’s important to accept all of them.

  • If something crosses your boundaries (e.g., playing with your hair in a way that bothers you), or otherwise upsets you, it’s always okay to explain how you feel.
  • If they state that they want to look less unusual, you might want to subtly point out when they do something strange. Explain it clearly and without condescension, the way you might tell a new driver how to merge onto a highway.
Try introducing this person to your other friends. If your autistic friend is looking to make new friends, then they may be interested in group events. No matter how obvious or subtle their autistic traits are in social settings, you might be surprised at how accepting other people are!

Watch for signs of stress, and step in to avoid a meltdown or shutdown. If an autistic person becomes overtaxed, it may end in screaming, crying, or losing the ability to speak. Your friend may not recognize stress cues on their own, so if you notice them becoming agitated, suggest that they take a break.

  • Help them get to a quiet, peaceful place with less noise and movement.
  • Take them away from crowds and spectators.[10]
  • Ask before touching or grabbing them. For example, “I’d like to take your hand now and lead you outside.” You don’t want to startle or scare them.
  • Avoid criticizing their behavior. They can’t control themselves very well right now, and you don’t want to stress them even further. If you’re overwhelmed, leave.
  • Ask if they would like a tight hug. Sometimes this helps.
  • Let them relax for a while afterwards. They might want one-on-one time, or want to be alone.
Respect their free will and personal space, and encourage others to do the same. The same rules of respect apply to autistic and non-autistic people: don’t grab or move their hands/arms/body without permission, don’t take away a toy or object they’re busy with, and be considerate in your words and actions. Some people, including adults, feel that disabled people don’t need to be treated like real people.

  • If you see someone else being rude or mean to the autistic person, say something.
  • Encourage your friend to recognize when they are being mistreated, and to stand up for themselves. This can be difficult for autistic people, especially those who have PTSD as a result of compliance therapy or other bad experiences.
Ask questions about how you can be accommodating and helpful. Get insight on how to relate to this person by talking with them about what it is like for them in particular to live as an autistic person. You may find that they want to share and can tell you lots of useful information that will help you to relate to them better.[11]

  • A broad question like “What is it like to be autistic?” is too vague, and the autistic person will probably be unable to put such a complicated thing into words. Specific questions, like “How does sensory overload feel?” or “Is there a way I can help when you get too stressed?” are more likely to result in a useful answer.
  • Be sure to do so in a quiet place when you are alone so as not to draw a lot of attention to them. Be sure to speak clearly and genuinely, so the autistic person doesn’t misunderstand or think you are teasing.
Avoid stressing out when this person ‘stims’. Stimming refers to self-stimulating behavior and it helps autistic individuals to stay calm or manage emotion. For example, if they start giggling and flapping their hands when they see you, it means they really like you. Try to remember that stimming often helps the person doing it, so unless it’s seriously disruptive or invading your personal space, learn to accept it. Try taking deep breaths in and out if you find yourself getting annoyed at the behavior. Stimming may include behaviors such as [12]:

  • Fidgeting with objects.
  • Rocking.
  • Flapping and fidgeting with hands.
  • Bouncing.
  • Head banging.
  • Squealing.
  • Repeatedly feeling the texture of something, such as hair.
Make it clear that you accept them. Autistic people are routinely criticized by family members, friends, therapists, bullies, and even strangers, because they act or look different. This can make life very difficult. Work on communicating unconditional acceptance in your words and actions. Remind them that it’s okay to be different, and you like them just the way they are.

 

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