“Getting to understand how a particular autistic person likes to communicate, can be extremely rewarding”
I’ve written this article from the point of view of a neural-typical person communicating with someone on the autistic spectrum. I created this list based on what works for me as an autistic person, and what I’ve learnt over the years as a tutor for the National Autistic Society in the UK.
It’s really important to point out that every autistic person will have their own communication style and face unique challenges in this area. Compiling a one size fits all list is difficult, so I have included a cross section of helpful tips.
My advice is to think about the following points on my list and see which will be useful to you as a starting point, then adjust to suit your needs.
1. Use clear short sentences when giving information or instructions to someone with autism.
2. Give them time to answer you. They may take some time to process what you are saying and then create a response. Be patient. Losing your temper, shouting or using language that could be perceived as emotionally threatening will only cause anxiety and slow down their ability to respond.
3. Don’t take it personally if they respond in a seemingly inappropriate way. They may not have mastered some of the social niceties just yet, and will not realise they have appeared rude, hurtful or overly honest in their comments.
4. For some autistic people, using pictures or diagrams to help get your point across can be helpful. I sometimes use a storyboard when presenting an autistic person with information on the days activities. This helps them visualise what is likely to happen during the course of the day and can be a way of greatly reducing their anxiety.
5. If the person with autism is struggling to understand what you are saying, try to re-phrase using words that are less ambiguous. When working with autistic people, I sometimes have to re-phrase 2 or 3 times until I am confident they have understood. So experiment with different ways of expressing the same information until you hit on an approach that works.
You may also need to break the information down in to smaller and smaller chunks, until it becomes understandable. Avoid overwhelming them with too much information in one go
6. Be aware of your physical presence, and that you may be standing or sitting too close. This can feel very uncomfortable. The opposite can also be true, as some autistic people tend to get very close when they are talking with others. I have learnt which of my students need plenty of physical space around them.
Some autistic people may not like shaking hands, or being patted on the back etc. I usually ask them if it’s OK to shake hands. It’s good for them to practice these social norms, such as shaking hands, but only if they feel comfortable with this.
7. Please do not assume that those of us on the autistic spectrum are not capable, knowledgeable people. We may just have a different style of communication from you. Take time to really understand how the individual with autism likes to be spoken to. As with neuro-typicals, almost all of us will be different!
8. Please do not force autistic people to make eye contact. This particular social norm can feel extremely uncomfortable at times, though with practice, possibly achievable in the long term .
Once you have gained their trust, you can gently encourage them over time, to make a little more eye contact. Contrary to the widely held belief, many autistic people do make good eye contact. I personally find judging the correct amount of eye contact a struggle, and sometimes do not not make any eye contact with people. This really limits my ability to read the other persons body language
9. Try to choose a quite place to have your conversation. An autistic person may have trouble processing what you are saying, and may be put off by too much background noise. When combined with social anxiety and difficulty reading body language, holding an effective conversation in a noisy and busy environment may be difficult to achieve.
10. If you sense the person with autism is beginning to feel agitated or anxious, ask if they would like to sit in a quiet place for a while to relax their mind. Afterwards you can resume your conversation. I have found this to be a very effective solution and often relieves the stress.
In practice, this is not always possible. and for a parent or carer, finding a quiet space in a noisy train station or supermarket is just not practical. In this case, just finding a different space sometimes works. For example, by saying “shall we go and sit in the cafe, for a while” promises relief from the current state of anxiety.
Getting to understand how a particular autistic person likes to communicate, can be extremely rewarding. When I’m working as a tutor at the National Autistic Society, I have a different communication strategy for each of my students. This is challenging, but in creating helpful strategies for them, I have also improved my own ability to communicate.
Patience, patience, patience
Take time to really listen, experiment and observe. The more understanding you have of their communication style, the greater the reward will be for both you, and the person with autism.
Thanks for reading-Steve