Autism is a spectrum condition. This means that being autistic will affect everyone differently. People of any gender, religion, social background and nationality can be autistic. Autism is a lifelong condition and cannot be treated or cured. Often autistic people feel that it is a fundamental part of who they are. All autistic people share certain difficulties that are highlighted below, but each autistic person will be affected in different ways.
Social imagination and flexible thinking
This means that an autistic person may not be flexible in the way they think about interests, routines, perspectives and rules. They may:
Not understand other people’s point of view or feelings
Be agitated by change
Not generalise information
Have a very literal understanding of things.
Autistic people can struggle to understand how to behave and interact with other people. They may:
Have difficulties understanding unwritten social rules relating to touch, proximity, turn taking and appropriate use of language
Be unaware of different ways to interact with different people, for example, friends, staff or strangers
Want to have friends and relationship but struggle to initiate and maintain them
Autistic people can find it difficult to communicate effectively. They may:
Communicate for their own needs rather than for social engagement
Talk about their own interests regardless of the listener’s response
Not always want to communicate with others
Have difficulties ‘reading between the lines’ or picking up on the subtext of a conversation
These lists are not exhaustive and autistic people can experience a range of other difficulties including:
Sensory sensitivity – over or under sensitivity to lights, smells, touch, sounds, tastes, temperatures or pain
Repetitive behaviour and routines
Highly focused interests
Difficulty paying attention to people and tasks.
Some autistic people have related conditions such as a learning disability or mental health problems. All autistic people can learn and develop, and with the right support can be helped to live a fulfilling life.
What you can do
Around one in 100 people in the UK has autism. This means that it is quite likely that you know someone on the autistic spectrum. Here are some general points to keep in mind when interacting with someone with autism to help them.
A whole range of things can make a person with autism anxious including:
Someone can show they’re anxious by withdrawing or repeating physical actions. Following the tips below can help.
Use clear, direct language. It is better to be literal – avoid metaphors and sarcasm
Maintain a calm demeanour
Be aware of the sensory aspects of your surroundings. Try to meet somewhere quiet and not too bright or highly decorated
Don’t expect much eye contact
Be punctual. If you’ve arranged a time to meet then stick to it
Don’t make promises that you can’t keep
Forcing people with autism to be sociable won’t work
Try to avoid physically touching
Be patient and give the person time to process and respond
Set out the time and agenda in advance and stick to it
Clearly set out a beginning, middle and end for any activities, tasks and meetings
Confirm the person’s understanding including anything they are expected to do
Work with the person’s preferred communication methods, such as diaries, visual planners or email
Give the person the opportunity to express anything that they may need you to do
Unplanned encounters and activities
Be polite and patient
If you do not already know the person well, clearly explain who you are
Explain why you are there and what you intend to do without using complicated terms or jargon
Ask the person if there is anything you can do to aid communication