How to Explain Autism to People
If one of your loved ones, or even you, is autistic, you may find that you need to explain the condition to other people on occasion. Before you can properly explain the condition, it is helpful to learn as much as you can about it. Then, you will be able to explain things like how autism affects a person’s social skills, empathy, and physical behaviors.
Understanding Autism so You can Teach Others
Know what the general definition of autism is. Autism is a developmental disability that generally leads to differences in communication and social skills. It is a neurological difference that presents significant difficulties, but also blessings.
Learn what autistic people have to say about autism. Autistic people, experiencing the differences and urges themselves, can offer the greatest insight into how autism works. They also present a more inclusive view than many parent-run organizations.
Understand that autism is a wide spectrum disorder. This means that symptoms vary from person to person. No two autistic individuals will experience the exact same symptoms. One person might have severe sensory issues with strong social skills and executive function, while another may have little sensory issues while struggling with basic social interaction. Due to this variation in symptoms, it is hard to generalize this condition.
- Keep this fact in mind when explaining autism to someone else. It is important to express that not all autistic people act the same way, just as not all neurotypical people act the same way.
- When describing an autistic person, emphasize that particular individual's needs.
Be aware of communication differences. Some autistic people find communicating with others to be very difficult. While these communication challenges will be discussed more thoroughly in Method 2, some common communication issues linked to autism include:
- Unusual or flat tone of voice, creating odd rhythms and pitches
- Repeating questions or phrases (echolalia)
- Difficulty expressing needs and desires
- Taking longer to process spoken words, not responding quickly to instructions, or becoming confused by too many words spoken too quickly
- Literal interpretation of language (confused about sarcasm, irony, and figures of speech)
Understand that autistic people interact differently with the world around them. When speaking with an autistic person, you may find yourself wondering if they are really paying attention to you, or even care that you’re there. Don't let this bother you. Keep in mind that:
- It is not uncommon for autistic individuals to appear disinterested in their surroundings. They may simply not be aware of or interested in the people around them. This makes it difficult to connect with others.
- An autistic person might listen differently. For example, eye contact may feel very uncomfortable and distracting to them, and they may need to fidget in order to focus. Thus, what looks like inattentiveness is actually them making modifications so they can listen better.
- An autistic person may appear as though they don't hear someone speaking to them. This may be due to auditory processing slowness, or too many distractions in the room. Offer to move to a quieter place, and give pauses in the conversation to let the autistic person think.
- Autistic children may find it challenging to play with others, because it involves difficult social rules and/or overwhelming sensory experiences. They may find it easier to disengage.
Realize that autistic people generally enjoy structure. They can create highly structured routines for their day. This is because autistic people can be easily startled by unknown stimuli, and the certainty of a schedule feels more comfortable. This is covered more in Method 4. Autistic people may...
- Follow a strict routine.
- Find unexpected changes very distressing (e.g. change in school environment).
- Use a comfort object to help deal with stress.
- Place things in order (e.g. lining toys up by color and size).
Explaining Autistic Social Skills to an Adult
Explain that autistic people may act a little differently, and this is okay. Autistic individuals deal with barriers and stressors that neurotypicals never face, so they may act unusually or exhibit different social skills. This depends on the individual's needs and strengths.
- People with stronger social skills may simply seem awkward and a little clumsy. Occasionally they make make seemingly thoughtless remarks that do not mesh well with the conversation.
- Some autistic people are incapable of interacting in a normal social setting.
Mention that the autistic person may not make eye contact. Eye contact can feel incredibly overwhelming, and the autistic person may not be able to meet someone's eyes and listen to their words at the same time. Explain that for autistic people, looking away is different from not listening.
- Never force eye contact. The autistic person may become frightened, their conversational skills may plummet, and it could trigger sensory overload.
- Some autistic people are capable of making eye contact without it bothering them too much. Again, it depends on the individual.
Explain that the autistic person is not ignoring them. Teach the person that autistic people may need to fidget or avoid eye contact in order to focus. The autistic person might look at their conversation partner's mouth, hands, or feet—or even in the opposite direction. Becoming angry with the autistic person will only make the autistic person avoid them.
- Remind them that due to sensory and attention differences, it can be difficult for autistic people to focus on a conversation. The autistic person is not ignoring other people; she may be struggling to take part in the interaction at all.
- Teach the individual to make it clear when they want to talk to the autistic person. The person should be physically close, use the autistic person's name, and preferably be in the autistic person's line of sight. If the autistic person doesn't respond when addressed, try again, because they may not have noticed.
Make it clear that some autistic people are nonverbal (incapable of speech). They may communicate through sign language, picture charts, typing, body language, or behavior. Explain that just because someone does not talk, it does not mean that they cannot understand speech, or that they have nothing to say.
- Remind them that "talking down" is always considered condescending. Nonverbal autistic people should be treated like peers of the same age.
- Show them the work of great nonverbal people, such as writer and self-advocate Amy Sequenzia.
Note that the autistic person may not understand sarcasm, humor, or tone. They have a hard time understanding different tones of voice, particularly when the facial features of the person talking do not match the tone of voice.
- When explaining this difficulty, you could liken it to the use of emoticons in texts. If a person were to text you “Well that’s just great”, you may assume that the person is being sincere. However, if the person uses an emoticon like “:-P” along with the text, which stands for someone sticking their tongue out, you would interpret the text as being sarcastic.
- Autistic people can learn to understand figurative language. Some are quite well-versed in the nuances of sarcasm and humor.
Explaining Autistic Conversational Differences
Help the person to understand that the autistic person truly does care about others' feelings. However, they do not necessarily understand how you feel, or know the best way to react to your feelings. Remind the person you are explaining autism to that many autistic individuals lack the ability to empathize, making them appear insensitive when really they are just not understanding the emotion you are experiencing.
- Explain that it's best to be clear about how you are feeling. For example, an autistic person might not understand why you are looking down, but if you tell them that you're feeling sad because your dad is upset with you, they will have a better idea of how to respond to you.
Tell the person about the intense passions that accompany autism. Many autistic people are deeply passionate about a few specific subjects, and could talk about them for great lengths of time.
- The regular population may feel as though this is rude, but generally autistic people do not mean to be dismissive of other people's thoughts and feelings. They may not realize that their conversation partner is not interested in what they have to say.
- Some autistic people are overly cautious about discussing their special interests, for fear of being rude. If that is the case with this individual, they should be assured that it is okay to talk about their passions once in a while, especially if their conversation partner is asking questions about them.
Express to the person that autistic people may not realize how interested you are. If you wish to change the subject, or want to end the conversation, they may not realize that you are dropping hints. It is best to be direct.
- It helps to prepare some reasons to leave, such as "I need to go so I'm not late" or "I'm overwhelmed and need some quiet time by myself" (something that many autistic people can understand).
Help the person to understand that autistic people have feelings like everyone else. It is important for people to understand that autistic people feel love, happiness, and pain just like others do. Just because they may seem detached at times does not mean that they are devoid of feelings—in fact, many autistic people feel things very deeply.
Explaining Physical Etiquette
Explain that some autistic people cannot handle physical touch. This is due to sensory issues. Reactions to touch vary greatly between autistic individuals, so it is important to ask the autistic person if they want to be touched.
- Some autistic people enjoy physical touch. Many autistic individuals will happily hug close friends and family members.
- When in doubt, ask. Say "Would you like a hug?" or move slowly, where the autistic person can see you and has the chance to ask you to stop. Never come up from behind to touch them, because you may startle them to the point of panic.
- Preferences change from day to day. For example, an autistic boy who usually loves hugs may suddenly say "no" when you ask if he wants one. This is usually due to sensory differences—the person may be simply too overwhelmed at the time to handle a hug. It should not be taken personally.
Explain that many autistic people cannot handle certain sensory stimuli. An autistic person may get a headache from bright lights, or jump and begin to cry if you drop a dish on the floor. Remind the person about the autistic person's sensitivities, so they can help.
- Explain that it is okay to ask about the autistic person's needs in order to accommodate them. For example, "Is this room too loud for you? Should we go somewhere else?"
- It is NEVER okay tease someone about their sensitivities (e.g. slamming cabinets to see the autistic person jump). This can cause intense pain, fear, or even panic attacks and is considered bullying.
Express to the person that it is easier to handle stimuli when the autistic person has warning to prepare. In general, autistic individuals handle situations better when they know what to expect, so express to the person that they should ask first before doing something that might startle the autistic individual.
- Example: "I'm going to close the garage door now. If you want to leave the room or cover your ears, go ahead."
Mention that the autistic person may display some behaviors that seem abnormal at first. This is called self-stimulatory behavior, or stimming, because it stimulates the senses. Stimming can help with self-calming, focus,, communication and meltdown prevention. Explain that while it looks unusual, it is never okay to stop an autistic person from stimming. Here are some examples of stimming:
- Rocking back and forth.
- Repeating words or noises (echolalia).
- Hand flapping.
- Snapping fingers.
- Head banging. (Tell a therapist or responsible adult if this becomes a problem. As it can cause physical harm, it's best to replace with another stim, such as shaking the head rapidly. A therapist can help find a replacement stim.)
- Jumping around and clapping in excitement.
Explain that stimming is often calming, because it creates predictable sensory input. Similar to routines, it can create a sense of safety and predictability. For instance, an autistic individual may hop in one spot repeatedly. They may also play the same song over and over, or draw the same picture. Repetitive behaviors relate to their comfort levels.
- If you are trying to explain your child's autism to a friend, compare how their child may get ready for school. There's a basic routine when getting ready for school: eating breakfast, brushing one's teeth, getting dressed, packing their schoolbag, etc. Although there's the same routine, some of these steps may get jumbled some mornings. A neurotypical child wouldn't care if they get dressed before breakfast one morning, which would be outside of the normal routine. For an autistic child, these changes can be extremely disorienting. If they're used to a certain routine, it's better to stick to it.
Explaining Autism to Your Child
Make sure your child is ready to have the discussion. It is important to be honest with your child, particularly if they are autistic, or is wondering about an autistic friend. However, it is also important to make sure that your child is old enough to understand what you are telling her, and will not become confused or overwhelmed. Every child is different, so there's no set age to speak to her. It is up to you as to when you do have the conversation.
- If your child is autistic, err on the side of talking about it too soon. It can be stressful to feel like you are different, but no one will tell you why. Young children can hear something as simple as "You have a disability called autism, which means your brain works a little differently, and that's why you have therapists to help you."
Explain to your child that autism is nothing to feel sad about. Let them know that autism is a disability, not a disease or a burden, and that it is okay to be autistic. Older children may benefit from being introduced to the concept of neurodiversity and the disability rights movement.
- Help your child to understand that their differences make them unique and special. Explain the strengths of autism: strong sense of logic and ethics, compassion, deep passions, focus, loyalty, and desire to help (social responsibility).
Encourage your child. Make sure you encourage your child, telling them that their autism makes them different but not lesser. Your child can still comfortably take part in school and home activities, and lead a happy life.
Make sure to express your love for your child. Always tell your child how much you love and care for them. It's important to have proper support, particularly when facing a life with a disability, and with help your child can live a happy, productive life.
- Do not get frustrated if the person you are explaining autism to doesn’t seem to ‘get it’. Stay calm and try to answer the questions that the person has while helping them to more clearly understand the condition.
- Offer to refer the listener to some websites about autism. See the references in this article for suggestions.
- Never prevent an autistic person from stimming.
- Be very careful about referring others to websites about autism. Some organizations (especially ones run by parents) demonize autism and focus on martyrdom instead of respect and inclusion. Focus on organization that are run by autistic people or have many autistic people in their uppermost board.
- Websites that discuss neurodiversity, use identity-first language, promote acceptance, and discuss accommodations instead of cures are usually good ones.