Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Reader Request: Dealing with autism for the non-autistic

So you don't have autism but you are going to be working with someone who does. Or maybe you have friends with and autistic child. Perhaps you are witnessing a meltdown in a grocery store. How do you handle such situations?

Getting to know a person with autism can be understandably confusing. Hopefully these tips will help you along in the process.

First and foremost, anyone with autism does not see or feel the world around them like you do. There will be reactions that make no sense. Simple or minuscule things may cause stress reactions. This is because of sensitivities way higher than yours. The most important thing you can do in any situation with autism is to stay calm and collected. If you stress out, the person you are dealing with will go even further over the edge. If you get stern and try to force an issue, it will make it worse. Calm and collected is the way.

Eccentricities are common. It's best to just accept them. No harm is meant by them (99% of the time) and they should simply be seen as personality quirks and nothing more. Even high functioning autistics have a hard time seeing how their quirks affect people around them. It gets harder when those quirks get rejected and we are trying to work out why. The advice here is to take the eccentric with a grain of salt and just shrug it off. Don't give it any extra attention unless some violation of space is occurring. Which brings me to;

Clear communication is key. Autism is a very literal issue. Metaphors and slang can be the enemy. If you are just joking, you should say so or come up with a known way for the person to understand that you are joking. Some of us don't comprehend facial expressions. So your laughing smile means the same as an angry grimace: basically nothing. It's not completely like that for everyone, but worthwhile to keep in  mind.

Things get internalized a lot. Misconceptions and misunderstandings happen all the time. They require patience and talking it out. A lot of people with autism will be harder on themselves than you or anyone else could ever be. So if you are thinking of ripping your autistic employee a "new one" because of some mistake, be careful. Explain the problem clearly and how to avoid it in the future. Aside form popular belief, autistic people do care what others think of them and want to get things "right". Autism is a self punishing beast.

Going to extremes. People with autism are either anti-social (by appearance at least) or overly social. There isn't usually any gray area. Seeing the gray area of things is very difficult. It's either black or white. Rules are rules. Things can get very technical fast.

Delayed maturity. This is especially important to understand with children. Maturity is generally behind, often by several years. Tolerance is helpful.

Now, to wrap this up, I offer a list of things NOT to do with anyone who is autistic. This is general information and may vary by individual.

Don't touch: Especially if there's a possible meltdown situation. Your touch will only add to the sensory stress that's going on. However, you may not have a choice if self harm comes into play. If a person starts hitting him or herself in the head, firmly take hold of their wrists and speak in a low quiet voice. Be calm. Children may have to be held with the "hug" method. If you are not suitably trained in restraint, seek assistance.

Don't shout: Again it's a sensory issue and only adds to stress. Speak in a calm tone and don't try to over-shout the person you are dealing with. Once a person is calmed down, they will be easier to talk to.

Don't startle: It may seem like fun and games to some people, but startling sets off sensory issues like wildfire. It triggers over-sensitive fight or flight response that can get out of hand in a hurry. Think of  it this way; would you startle your buddy who's a war veteran? Of course not. Don't startle autistics either.

Don't ask parents what their child's special skill is: Most of them don't consider their children a sideshow act. You may mean it innocently, but it gets tiring. It happens all the time.

Don't use the word  normal: Nothing feels "normal" to an autistic person. It invalidates and diminishes that person's struggles by telling them "Oh that's normal". The term is so hated, that it's one step away from a racial slur.

Don't interfere with parents: Unless they ask for your help (and they usually won't) they just want to deal with their child's current issue and be left alone. In public, it's stressful and embarrassing enough without someone coming to lend their advice or tell them off about their child. Some DO appreciate words of encouragement like "I think you're doing a good job". You can even ask if someone is okay, but mostly they want to be left alone. Sometimes, other autism parents are welcome so long as they identify that.

So, tolerance, clear communication, and understanding are key to dealing with autism. Stay calm and cool. Don't get physical unless a life is in danger. And take your time getting to know the person or child. Situations vary. Use common sense for the rest.

Suggested reading: Understanding Autism for Dummies


Tina Brooks said...

I'd add... Never underestimate the autistic. Their comprehension ability may be way higher than you think given their response ability.

David Wilde said...

Absolutely Tina! I agree!