How to Support an Autistic Person
There are plenty of ways you can help an autistic loved one, including ways to help her manage stress and communicate effectively. If the autistic person is a family member, you can also help create a comfortable home environment.
Creating a Friendly Environment
Create sanctuaries where the autistic person can feel relaxed. It is easy for autistic people to become stressed or overwhelmed, so creating quiet places can help them stay calm.
- When they are looking for a place to sit, suggest one with minimal distractions (e.g. facing away from a noisy kitchen)
- Move conversations to quiet places
- Designate an area where the autistic person can retreat during stress, and fill it with calming things
Make a schedule. Autistic people may have a hard time with unexpected changes in day-to-day life. Routines can support their sense of stability. When changes are made to those routines, the whole day can be completely thrown off, leading to confusion, anger, or a meltdown. Here are some tips to keep things stable:
- Help her to create a schedule for herself. Time slots can be used to designate what activities will happen during each part of the day.
- Maintain a visual calendar. Place it in a prominent and accessible location, such as a wall in the family room.
- Illustrations (clip art or drawings by the autistic person) can make the calendar look more friendly and appealing
Give your loved one plenty of warning so that she can adjust to any schedule changes. To prepare your loved one for this change, you should try to plan the event with her to make sure that she knows it is coming up.
- For example, a dentist's appointment may change your loved one's schedule. Put this event on your loved one’s calendar and discuss it with her ahead of time. While she might not be happy about her schedule being changed, she will at least be prepared.
- Try to place activities at specific time slots. For example, if she has math meets on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 3:00, plan something else at 3:00 (e.g. a family hike) so that she will always have some sort of activity at the time.
Schedule downtime after stressful or taxing events. After a busy day at school, a social event, an appointment, or an outing, an autistic person is likely to feel tired. Time spent doing quiet activities (reading, playing, special interests) will help them recharge and stay balanced.
- Remember that your idea of relaxation may not match their idea of relaxation.
- During a schedule change, try to schedule something positive after the stressful change. For example, after a doctor appointment, let your son have free time until supper.
Determine which stimuli cause discomfort. Autistic people often struggle with Sensory Processing Disorder, a neurological disorder in which sensory input that feels normal to other people may feel distracting, intensely uncomfortable, or even painful to the individual. Understand that these sensitivities cannot be ignored or willed away, and cause real distress.
- Communicate with your loved one about the stimuli. Try to observe what causes her discomfort, or just ask her. She may potentially be able to express her discomfort, or give you clues. Pinpoint what the issues are, and try to find ways around them.
- For example, if your teenage sister cannot handle the sharp taste of toothpaste, try helping her pick out a milder flavor (e.g. children's bubble gum) toothpaste at the store.
Make sure that any therapies are consensual. Some autism therapies, particularly behavior modification like ABA, can lead to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Some therapies are designed to break the patient's will, or force them to act "normal." The therapist may label cries of protest as "tantrums."
- Your loved one should enjoy therapy, or at minimum feel neutral towards it.
- The autistic person should be able to say "no."
- Your loved one should be able to take breaks.
- Therapy should not involve crying, screaming, violence, or pleading for help.
- If you suspect that a therapy is overwhelming, frightening, or painful, end it immediately. If you are not an adult, tell an adult, or report it to the authorities.
Incorporate exercise into their daily lives. Exercise can provide an outlet for excess energy (if they constantly need to stim), can introduce them to sensory stimuli in a safe and controllable way, and can improve their mood and sense of security. Find an activity they like, and stick with it.
Encourage special interests. Special interests can offer a refuge to autistic people, develop important skills (for example, a young writer will learn to take critique), and possibly lead to a satisfying hobby or career. It also encourages the autistic person to be themselves.
- Choose toys related to the interest
- Discuss their interest for a comfortable time period, e.g. during a car ride (You can also model reciprocal conversation by asking questions)
- Help them learn more via library books
- Suggest that they join clubs and activities related to the interest, since socializing may be less threatening if they like the conversation topic
Learn to see patterns in meltdowns. Knowing your loved one's triggers can help you identify a potentially overwhelming situation, and defuse it before stress reaches the boiling point. Consider keeping a record of meltdown triggers to help future prevention.
- For example, going to a restaurant can be very chaotic for a child. Sometimes removing her from the environment for a few minutes is enough to help her stay relaxed.
Know the warning signs of a meltdown. Meltdowns are the result of stress buildup in autistic people, and the best treatment is prevention. Here are ways to notice when a meltdown may be coming:
- Having too many verbal instructions given to them at one time.
- Witnessing injustice
- Painful/overwhelming stimuli
- Changes in routine
- Not being able to understand or communicate effectively
Intervene quickly on behalf of the autistic person. Your loved one may not realize how badly stress is building up, or may be unable to communicate it. Remove any stressors, and ask what is bothering them.
Immediately make the requested accommodations. Autistic people are used to being told that their needs are over-the-top or burdensome, so if they ask for something to change, it's probably causing them real pain or distress.
- Don't hold their needs hostage. Even if they don't use their words or say please properly, assume that it is urgent. You can coach them on proper delivery when they aren't on the verge of tears.
Take them somewhere calmer. Try bringing them outdoors, or leading them to their calming down corner. This will give them a chance to relax where they aren't surrounded by people and stimuli.
Never shout at or scold an autistic person during a meltdown. They often feel deeply ashamed and embarrassed about losing control, and making them feel worse will only make it more difficult to calm down.
- If you are in public and there are people around who are looking at your loved one, politely ask them not to stare.
Encourage stimming. Stimming (aka self-stimulatory behavior) is a way to stimulate the senses, and it can be extremely calming for autistic people. Examples include rocking, hand flapping, jumping, and fidgeting. Here are some ways to encourage the autistic person to stim:
- Offer a rocking chair (if available)
- Bring their favorite stim toys and/or a weighted blanket.
- Ask about a stim that they like to use for self-calming (e.g. "Do you want to flap your arms?")
- Offer a bear hug
- Do not judge them for looking unusual, and if anyone else objects to the autistic person's self-calming efforts, use your words or a sharp stare to let them know that this is unacceptable
Once your loved one is calm again, touch base, and find out what triggered the meltdown. Encourage an honest, constructive conversation. Focus on the triggers, and what she (and you!) could do to avoid similar situations in the future.
- If a crowded store sends your daughter into tears, try planning the trip when the store will be less crowded, bringing earplugs and stim toys, or letting her stay at home.
- If news of a racist police killing triggered a meltdown in your brother, suggest to your parents that they not leave the news on at night, and help him with relaxation exercises.
Recognize that communication may be challenging. Autistic body language can be different from neurotypical (non-autistic) body language, and autistic people may not always realize what an expression or gesture means.
Try not to be upset by an offhand tone or aloof body language. Due to this confusion about body language, an autistic person will more than likely not produce body language that matches the way she is feeling. This is also the case with tone. Because of this, it is important to remind yourself not to read into or be offended by any rude tone or body language that is directed at you.
- For example, your loved one’s tone may seem short and rude, yet she may be in a fantastic mood.
- Watching their stims may offer cues. For example, if a boy only flaps his hands when he is happy, then this is probably a reliable sign that nothing is actually wrong.
- Even if they are upset, it may not be your fault. For example, a barking dog may have been putting them on edge all day.
Realize that auditory processing can be an issue. This means that while the autistic person is fully capable of understanding language, it may be hard for her brain to translate spoken words to their meanings. Gauge her reaction to verbal instructions or long lists. She may need written instructions, or she may just require more processing time before responding.
- She may be unable to remember spoken lists, and need written and/or illustrated lists as well
- She may be slower to respond (e.g. not reaching in time when hearing "Your book is about to fall!")
- Her writing and reading skills may far exceed her verbal communication skills
Try to create a calm space to communicate in. Your loved one may have a hard time communicating in busy places where there is a lot of noise. In places where multiple people are talking, your loved one may become stressed if you try to communicate with her. Instead, communicate with her in calm environments where little is going on.
- If a room is crowded, move elsewhere.
- Try using AAC if you cannot move (e.g. sign language, picture charts, or typing).
Consider focus training to improve social skills. Focus training is a training course the can help your loved one to develop strategies for interactions with other people. This type of training teaches individuals how to understand thoughts and feelings. Focus training is generally done in a group setting, though it can also be done in an individual session. During the therapy, your loved one will hopefully develop strategies for emotional regulation, conversational skills, problem solving, and friendship skills.
- Relationship Development Intervention (RDI) is a popular form. Its atmosphere is consensual, and it is supported by many autistic people.
Teaching Important Skills
Teach calming techniques. According to the "Intense World" theory of autism, the world can quickly become frightening or overwhelming to autistic people, and they may need extra support in learning to handle it. These exercises may include:
- Practicing deep breathing
- Counting to feel calm
- Holding a favorite toy or item until she feels better
- Certain stims
- Yoga, meditation, or stretching
- Taking a break with music or singing
Teach your loved one to prevent meltdowns by asking for help. Phrases such as "I need a break, please" or "May I go to my corner?" can be particularly useful. Avoiding meltdowns becomes easier once your loved one can identify their own triggers and ask for help in taking action.
- Reinforce this behavior by immediately honoring the request.
- If they are just learning how to do this, thank them for speaking up. "Thank you for letting me know that the loud noise hurt your ears! Now I can help you find earplugs, and you can wait outside with your brother while I check out."
Teach about emotions using flash cards, books, and movies. Fictional examples can help autistic people understand how others feel, and why they feel that way. It allows autistic people to analyze emotion from a safer distance.
- If the child does not understand basic expressions, try teaching them with flash cards.
- Ask "How do you think he is feeling right now?" during books or movies. Offer suggestions if the person isn't sure.
- Also try social skills: "Do you think it was a good idea for her to do that? No? What would be a good idea?"
- Look for shows that are a mix of fun and education, such as My Little Pony.
Set realistic social goals. Recognize that your loved one is never going to be the life of the party, and that is all right. Focus on what they want to do: perhaps they want to make two close friends, or have someone to play with at recess. Tailor social skills to their desires, not just your own.
Teach moderation in special interest discussions. Autistic children may be incredibly passionate about their interests, and thus may not always notice when they are monopolizing the conversation, or realize that their partner wants to change the subject. Teach your child how to:
- Ask questions to engage others ("How was work today, Mommy?")
- Tell whether someone is engaged
- Let the conversation shift organically
- Know when monologuing is a good idea (e.g. when someone wants to learn about their subject of interest)
Model good social skills. Remember, the autistic person is constantly learning and growing—and you are one of their role models. Behave in the way that you want them to behave, and they will take after you.
- Genuinely listen to the autistic person, and ask questions.
- When frustrated or exhausted, act the way you would like the autistic person to act. Take a break if need be. (It's okay!)
- Demonstrate compassion. Never do something to an autistic person that you wouldn't do to a neurotypical person.
- Treat their feelings as meaningful and valid.
Offer praise readily. Autistic people are at higher risk for anxiety and depression, which may mean lower self-esteem. Bolster their self-esteem by recognizing their good qualities, and praising their efforts to grow. Make it clear that you are proud of them.
- Praise can come in the form of kind words, hugs, time spent together, or extra free time.
- While praise is good, do not treat praise as an ultimate goal. If a person becomes dependent on praise, they may become a people-pleaser, and be unable to set boundaries.
Teach self-advocacy skills. Autistic people need to learn how to stand up for themselves, assert their needs, and say "no" when they don't want something. This is especially important, since they are at a higher risk for being abused.
- Allow them to refuse things. ("I don't want that sweater. It hurts!")
- Praise them for expressing their needs. ("Thank you for letting me know the music is too loud. I'll turn it down right away.")
- Give them choices and encourage thinking.
- Avoid compliance therapies, which can hinder their ability to say no.
- When your loved one says "no," listen. What's wrong? If something is unavoidable, can you remove the part that makes it distasteful, or strike a bargain that they are happy with? Only ignore a "no" in important cases of health or safety.
- Teens and adults may gain skills through self-advocacy groups such as ASAN or the Autism Women's Network. (However, be careful about introducing them to such groups if they are sensitive, since the issues of hatred, abusive therapy, and torture may disrupt their sleep.)
Be aware of the autism spectrum. Autism has a wide range of symptoms that vary from person to person. Since autism is a developmental disability, communication and social skills tend to be a challenge. Specific symptoms vary.
Consider your loved one’s specific strengths and challenges. It is important to understand your loved one's symptoms. Once you understand where the challenges lie, you can target those areas. Find out what strengths your loved one has, and what challenges she faces. All of these components are important when choosing treatment options and coping mechanisms.
Be knowledgeable about autism. It is good to know the general symptoms, and what autistic people think about autism. (Autistic-run organizations and blogs are usually good sources.) Here are a few symptoms of autism:
- Motor skills may be delayed
- It is challenging to interact with others
- Difficulty grasping abstract uses of language (e.g. sarcasm, metaphors)
- Special interests that are unusual in terms of focus and passion
- Strong reactions to various stimuli (sounds, sights, smells, etc.)
Understand that every autistic person's goals are different. One autistic person might want to focus on developing the self-care skills to live on her own, while another might want to make friends. Others might be perfectly fine with living in assisted living, or not making more friends. Recognize that your idea of the ideal lifestyle might differ from their idea, and it's most important that they are able to be happy.
Accept them as they are. Autistic people are not embarrassing, broken, or deficient—simply different. Instead of saying "I'll finally be happy when my loved one _____," practice being happy now, and embarking on your journey together. Demonstrate unconditional love, so they can love themselves.
- Be aware that part of a person’s schedule may involve certain self-care oddities, like wearing the same outfit every day of the week.
- There is significant debate surrounding whether "people-first" or "identity-first" language is preferable—in other words, whether autistic people prefer to be called "autistics" or "autistic individuals" or "individuals with autism" or "individuals who have autism." This article uses identity-first language ("autistic people"), because it is preferred widely in the autistic community. Ask your loved one what language they prefer, and respect that preference.
- If you are autistic as well, let them know if you have a particular behaviour or issue in common with them (but don't assume you do).
- If you are autistic too, let them know you are on the spectrum if you think it makes a difference to your relationship with them.
- Remember that autistic people come in all shapes and sizes and from all levels of society. Don't rely upon stereotypes about an autistic person's social or ethnic background.
- Don't be patronising in the way you relate to autistic people. If you aren't genuinely nice, they will be able to tell.
- Don't make assumptions about an autistic person's life, like whether or not they have a partner or how they spend their free time.
- Remember that non-verbal autistic people are not stupid and that people with disabilities and/or differences deserve to be respected as human beings regardless of their intellect.
- Don't distract an autistic person from their hobbies or jobs if they are intensely focused on them unless you think that they will benefit from hearing from you. What looks like someone glued to a screen to you may feel more like distracting someone from meditating, driving, or performing surgery to them, or like trying to talk to someone in the crucial scene in a movie.
- Don't use movies or scenes from movies to identify social situations if they're exaggerated, inaccurate, or offer false hope. What seems romantic in a movie may seem creepy in real life, stunts in films are usually a lot more dangerous in real life, and even the best situations in real life offer complications that make them less than the perfection people see in a Hollywood or Disney film.
- Don't assume an autistic person has or hasn't heard you if they don't offer a response. Find a way to check.
- Be kind. No matter how rude or unkind they are being, autistic children need your support. Don't yell or hate; set a good example. Be sweet and loving.
- Make your role and experience clear to the autistic person in question, so that you and the person you are with don't miscommunicate with each other.
- Never stop an autistic person from stimming or force them to make eye contact. This robs them of coping skills and impedes their focus.
- Be careful when selecting therapists. Some therapists use compliance therapy, which can hurt children or even give them PTSD.