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Олена Зеленська

How to communicate with people who have autism spectrum disorder


Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) includes a wide range of different states and behaviors. Actually, that’s why the word “spectrum” is in the name itself.

People with ASD can also be different from one another. When talking to some of them, you might immediately notice the manifestations of unusual behavior and communication, while many others can communicate without difficulty. There are people who speak freely, and there are those who speak in learned phrases or only in single words. Sometimes people with ASD communicate with the help of special cards, and sometimes you might meet a person who does not communicate at all. But all these people have one thing in common – a high level of anxiety and constant stress due to the unpredictability of the world. In order to control this anxiety and have a sense of security, they strive for order.Schedules, procedures, routines are vital to preserve this sense of order around them.

It is important to understand that taking a certain route or putting on a hat first, and then a scarf, or entering the store from this side, is a critical ritual for a person with ASD and to break it means to put them under great stress.

Sometimes a person with ASD may not understand a joke and take a lightly-hearted phrase seriously. This may lead them to create real plans and spend a lot of time thinking over ideas. Sometimes things that seem insignificant to neurotypical people are very important for people with ASD. And when a plan or rituals (certain repetitive actions that a person has made for himself) goes wrong, it can be stressful for them.

For example, forcing a person to turn off a TV series in the middle of an episode they are watching can cause a negative reaction. Or a person may refuse to leave the room if they can’t find socks of a particular color.

All this must be taken into account if you are trying to offer something new to a person with ASD or change their plans. Because their plans and rituals, even in the smallest details, are very important. If you want to suggest a new activity, such as travel,give the person time to think everything overand get used to this proposal. And be prepared that they may not like it, because everyone’s preferences are different.

The same goes for gifts. A person with ASD may not always be able to instantly express their feelings or gratitude for something nice that other people have done for them – they may see the surprise as something that violates the established procedure. Therefore, you also need to be prepared for such an experience. It is also necessary to accept that a person may not like the gift and they will not politely pretend that they are delighted.

While talking to people with ASD, pauses in anticipation of the answer should be made a little longer – from 30 seconds to about a minute. Keep a soft focus on the person – look at a point somewhere in the middle of their forehead, not in their eyes. And be prepared for the fact that the person will not look at you directly, and for example, look away. This is not a sign of rudeness, but a way to steady themselves. Rocking movements can also be a way of calming down for the person, as can be exclamations. This is a need of the person’s nervous system, so do not take such behavior at your own expense and do not scold the person for acting the way they do. Also, don’t be surprised if someone shows you a card or text instead of talking – this is simply their way of communicating.

Speak clearly and do not make any promises you won’t uphold. You can forget what you said, and the person will be patiently waiting.

For example, in a conversation where you are sharing your impressions of traveling or working abroad, and a person with ASD begins to dream the same thing. Here it is important to be careful with words of encouragement:«Of course, come on, next time you will go with me.» Because you may see this as words of motivation, and a person with ASD might see this as something that will definitely happen in the future. They might start living according to this scenario seriously planning the trip. This might lead to disappointment.

So it is better not to use abstract phrases or excuses. If in doubt, say a clear “no” and try to explain why.

Avoid metaphors, hyperboles or figurative speech. Instead, use simple, clear and short sentences.

You should also keep in mind that people with ASD may not also understand certain inflictions, gestures or can correctly guess your tone, so try to speak in a straightforward manner.
For example, if a person won’t stop talking and you are tired, you don’t have to say,
«I want to sleep». Because they’ll probably think you’re just saying this to share that you’re sleepy. It is better to be straightforward and say «I don’t want to discuss this anymore, let’s end the conversation». And be prepared that the person will communicate with you without any hidden subtext.

There is a common stereotype that people with autism spectrum disorder have special talents or abilities, and that they are unusually gifted. In fact, just like any other person, people with ASD may have unique abilities. But you should not focus on this and treat them as fantastic special beings.

People with ASD may have desires that seem strange to you, but they are quite understandable and acceptable to them. This may involve eating or wearing particular clothing.

For example, a person may not want to eat cheese if there is no cutting board, because everything must be according to the rules they have set up for themselves. In this case, you can ask what a person needs, what he wants to wear, get as a gift, eat … And do not insist on your option.

You should try to accept the person as they are and avoid trying to “fix” them.

Remember that people with ASD also feel, hear, see and understand everything. Do not ignore the person, do not talk about them in the third person, as if they are not around or are incapable of understanding you. They may be very hurt by this attitude.Important: sometimes people with autism spectrum disorders can be very sensitive to touch and hugs, to light, smells and sounds.

For example, a person may constantly wear headphones or sunglasses, even at night, because it is necessary to protect their sensory systems. So pay attention to how a person perceives physical manifestations of attention.

If a person uses the services of an accompanying person, it may make sense to learn from them about the peculiarities of the person’s behavior and rituals. And continue to establish communication directly, even if it seems difficult.


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