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10 Ways Neurotypical People Can Communicate Better With Autistic Friends & Family

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Two women sit on a park bench and laugh

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a neurodevelopmental condition that can be reliably diagnosed in a patient by medical professionals as early as age 2.

In general, individuals who are determined to be Autistic may have difficulty with social interactions, communication and behaviors that often include restrictive, repetitive and stereotyped behavioral patterns.

The autism experience varies significantly from person to person, and it is important to note that there is no one way to talk about Autistic people or their experiences. There are, however, some trends when it comes to how neurotypical people can do a better job when communicating with Autistic people, which I will highlight below. 

The key to understanding how to talk with someone on the spectrum requires recognizing the subtle differences and needs of the individual. This recognition is especially important in situations of crisis and when an individual is in need of help.

Everyone's experience with ASD is different.

Some individuals have more severe symptoms that prevent them from living independently. Others have more mild symptoms and achieve independence. .

Everyone on the spectrum is unique. Some individuals learn to compensate for the social and communication challenges they endure. They learn to mimic what others say and how others behave in social situations, compensating for their inability to read social cues and engage in spontaneous conversation.

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Sometimes autism isn't so obvious.

Compensating allows some people with ASD to hide social challenges. Because of this, symptoms often go unnoticed, resulting in the possibility of delays in a formal diagnosis until well into adulthood.

Receiving a diagnosis is often a relief for an individual who has struggled with social interaction and communication. A late diagnosis might serve to validate an individual’s struggle with social situations and help them understand why they may feel different, isolated, or unique.

Individuals diagnosed with ASD often seek out others on the spectrum who understand them. Sometimes problems can occur when individuals who are not on the spectrum misunderstand or misinterpret a person with ASD.

Here are 10 tips to help neurotypicl people communicate more effectively with Autistic people.

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1. A lack of apparent emotional expression does not mean they don’t care.

Do not assume they do not care or have feelings about what is being said. Their emotional expression may not always match the situation. They may have deep feelings and passion about something, but not express these emotions in a visible or recognizable way. 

2. Social interactions that seem scripted or awkward are not superficial.

Conversations that lack a spontaneous flow are common in interactions with individuals diagnosed with ASD. This is because they often learn what to say and how to say it by watching and mimicking the behaviors observed by characters on television and in movies.

Repeatedly watching the same movie over and over helps them to mimic how people interact. They copy how close or far to stand near someone and what gestures to use during social interactions. They learn through the media because it is difficult for them to automatically learn the unwritten rules of social communication through everyday conversation.

Although interactions with people diagnosed with ASD might seem scripted, know that they are making an honest effort to communicate with you. 

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3. Staring or glancing away during conversation is common.

For some people on the spectrum, eye contact is difficult. Therefore, they learn how to make and maintain eye contact by watching others. Do not misinterpret glancing away or staring as an indication of lying or being dis-ingenuine or disinterested. Understand that making eye contact may take a great amount of effort as they attend to the conversation. 

4. Speech irregularities are not a sign of disrespect.

Sometimes, people with ASD may struggle to maintain a natural conversational rhythm or tone. Voice disregulation is a common characteristic of ASD, affecting some more than others.

When necessary, the listener can verbally guide the person with ASD by asking them to speak more softly or loudly according to the surroundings. Scolding, teasing, or correcting them harshly will only escalate anxiety and not help the situation.

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5. Understand that many individuals on the spectrum are isolated and withdrawn from the world.

The lack of social skills, rigid behavior and narrow fields of interest limit the availability of social interactions. To make matters worse, some individuals are harassed, bullied, and ignored (some for their entire lives).

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Chronic and significant rejection can cause the individual to engage in self-harm or impulsive behaviors such as running away or lashing out. Behaviors can escalate when in an unfamiliar and high-stress situation where they lack control, such as in a courtroom or in jail.

When talking with a person on the spectrum, be mindful that they may need to establish trust with you and feel comfortable before they can participate.

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6. People with ASD can become fixated on, and info dump about, some subjects.

Especially if they are talking about a subject they may have expert knowledge about. Some individuals may talk incessantly about the topic, causing the conversation to seem like a one-sided collection of unending facts.

To encourage reciprocal conversation, the individual can be verbally redirected to answer questions, summarize points, and draw a conclusion. Understand that the inability to infer what the listener is thinking or experiencing during this type of conversation is often a characteristic of ASD.

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7. When confronted with an emotional situation, people with ASD may shut down.

This does not mean they don’t care or feel anything. Instead, this may indicate that the emotions are too intense and too overwhelming for their sensory system. As a result, they may shut down.

An emotional shut-down causes a failure to express empathy, not a failure to feel empathy. Emotional shutdowns are probably the most misinterpreted characteristic of ASD, causing the person to be perceived as cold and uncaring. This is not the case. Emotional shutdowns are actually protective and help the person cope with the overwhelming sensory experience.

If you are interacting with a person experiencing a shut-down, then try to respond with patience. Give them time and space to absorb and understand the emotional situation. Let them know you are available to talk and support them when they are ready.

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8. Some with ASD are at risk to become victims.

Individuals with ASD are vulnerable, making them more likely to be a victim of rape, child abuse, robbery, bullying, or domestic violence. Equally, they are likely to be taken advantage of in relationships and used as a resource for money or favors, and encouraged to engage in dangerous activities.

When talking with a person with autism, help them understand boundaries and friendships. Teach them to be cautious with trust, money or favors that may cause them harm.

9. Under pressure, individuals on the spectrum may become agitated and react impulsively by lashing out or running away.

When a person with ASD is in a high-stress situation that feels unpredictable, they may not be able to cope until they regain a sense of control and calmness. Reassure them you can help and that support is available to handle the situation.

Speak with a calm voice. Encourage them to breathe and step away from the situation to regroup. Time, space, and reassurance can help to de-escalate the situation.

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10.  Many individuals with ASD lack motor skills, balance and upper body strength.

It is possible that although someone has accomplished many goals in life and has learned many skills, their motor skills may be significantly lacking. Motor skills necessary to ride a bike, catch a ball, hike or play basketball may be difficult due to poor balance and muscle control, a common characteristic of ASD. Be aware of this possibility when interacting with individuals that are on the spectrum.

It isn't helpful to make assumptions about people or to stereotype them based upon just one condition. Everyone is unique, and it's possible that you will meet individuals and make use of all or none of the above traits.

The best thing that people without ASD can do to work with individuals that are on the spectrum is to be aware of possible difficulties and, most importantly, be open to them and what they say and do.

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Dr. Nancy Masura, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist and published author. To learn more about de-escalation and to sign up for one of her workshops, visit her website.

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This article was originally published at www.drnancymusarra.com. Reprinted with permission from the author.