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As the prevalence of autism increases, the world is slowly (very slowly) adjusting to fit a changing population. Top companies are hiring people with autism for high-powered jobs, autism awareness is growing, and you can now book an autism-friendly vacation. But people with autism are still waiting for what seems like the most obvious adjustment: neurotypicals to stop being afraid to talk to them.
Talking to someone with autism doesn’t require learning a new language or earning a degree. In fact, the rules for having a conversation with a person with autism are the pretty much the same as having a respectful conversation with anyone, and friendships with people on the autism spectrum can be unique and refreshing.
There is no quick-and-easy formula for striking up a conversation with a person on the spectrum, but there are some basic principles that apply every time. Here are our 10 best tips for having a conversation with a person with autism:
1. REMEMBER WE’RE ALL HUMAN HERE
Too often people are scared of whatever’s different from them. Someone may have heard of “meltdowns” or “stimming” and automatically assume they won’t be able to have a conversation with a person with autism, but that’s not true. People with autism process information differently, so communication may be different than what neurotypicals are used to, but that doesn’t mean they don’t want to have conversations.
Be prepared for a person with autism to use body language differently, or respond to your body language differently. You may have misunderstandings, and jokes (on both ends) may fall flat. Be patient and don’t assume ill intent. Try not to label something as “awkward,” when it’s really just unfamiliar territory. Relax! Different is good—embrace it!
2. DON’T TALK DOWN
Even if a person with autism is non-verbal, that does not mean they are unintelligent. Speaking louder or changing your voice may intimidate someone with autism (and make you look strange). Speak clearly and normally, and be patient when someone is responding. They may be working much harder than you realize to understand what you said.
People with autism often deal with others talking down to them, and it’s not appreciated. Try an age-appropriate conversation and then adjust if needed. Also, regardless of conversation ability, using gestures that you would use for children—like head pats or silly faces—are not helpful. In fact, touching without permission is never cool.
3. EYE CONTACT IS OVERRATED
It’s usually not comfortable for a person with autism to make direct eye contact. Making the effort to make eye contact will take focus away from the conversation, so it doesn’t do you any favors to insist on it. A person with autism may be much more comfortable looking at another part of your face or away from you entirely.
Neurotypicals generally use eye contact as a form of nonverbal communication, but two people can have a perfectly good conversation even if they aren’t eyeballing each other!
4. USE YOUR WORDS!
Even couples that have been together for years can get into a tizzy when one partner doesn’t understand what the other thought was completely obvious. Someone may assume that because something is clear in their own mind, it’s clear to whomever they’re communicating with. That’s a dangerous game at any time, but remember that a person with autism processes information differently and may not pick up on what neurotypicals think are obvious cues.
People with autism tend to take things literally, so actual words are more important than body language. If there’s a misunderstanding, just politely repeat yourself or explain a different way!