What People on the Autism Spectrum Wish You Knew
With greater awareness of autism, negative judgment may be becoming less common. But there are still things those with an Autism Spectrum Disorder would like for you to know about them.
People, for the most part, are social creatures with social expectations about how we should act and how proper behavior is defined. When someone crosses this line, we are quick to judge and criticize, regardless of the fact that we rarely know what might have caused the behavior. The truth is, we can’t understand other’s behavior when we aren’t in their minds, don’t know their backgrounds or what they’ve experienced in their lifetimes, or comprehend what might be contributing to it from a physiological perspective.
When we see a child who seems to be misbehaving, we look to the adults that we feel should be controlling them. While we judge the child, we also judge the adult for not teaching them better about the acceptable ways to act. When we see an adult who appears to be misbehaving, we are even more critical, feeling that an adult “should know better.” But for those with autism, as well as for their family members, this type of criticism can make matters worse, making families feel stigmatized.
Most people don’t intentionally set out to hurt individuals with autism or their families. The negative attitudes and beliefs usually result from a lack of knowledge about the disorder. Increased awareness has been shown to be the single most important factor in decreasing the stigma associated with having an autism spectrum disorder.
The following tips come from individuals on the autism spectrum, and friends and family members of individuals with autism, and professionals who have worked closely with people on the spectrum.
I don’t see, feel, or hear the world the same way you do. Sometimes, there are sounds, odors, tastes, lights or other types of stimulation that I find stressful, scary or every painful. Being touched can be very overwhelming to me so when I push you away when you try to hug me it’s not because I don’t want to be close. But if you give it a chance you might find that I appreciate details you miss and there are things I enjoy, and find funny and exciting that you might also if you are willing to share them with me.
If you know someone who has autism or is the family member of someone with autism, when you see difficult behavior determine if there is a way you can help. If a family member is in the grocery store trying to check out while the person with autism has a melt down, offer to stand in line for them so they can take the person outside to calm down.
If you notice a neighbor outside with their autistic child who is having a tantrum, invite the child’s siblings over while the parent helps the other child regain control. These are the types of things that can really make a difference for these individuals and families.
As hard as it is for adults to understand why someone with autism acts so differently, children have an even tougher time figuring it out. Children can be mean and even neurotypical children can be bullied. Talk with your children about what they may be observing in our child and why it is happening. If you need help knowing what to say we are always available to talk about it and can provide you with useful resources that explain things at a child’s level.
Even those of us who are verbally fluent have unique ways to communicate. My behavior is one of my main ways of communicating. Some of us people may not develop much in the way of language skills, instead relying on non-verbal communication techniques. I might use gestures, pictures of drawings, crying or other emotion based sounds or I might physically direct your hand to something that I want. If you are willing to try, you will learn to read what I am trying to say through practice and context.
Sometime I may use echolalia or repeating phrases that I’ve heard somewhere like a movie or t.v. show. Even though they may seem completely out of context they usually will point to something concrete that I want you to know. If you become familiar with the programs these phrases came from you can probably figure out what I mean when I use a particular phrase.
My understanding of language is quite literal. I typically don’t understand humor especially puns. The easiest way to deal with this is to speak in simple, plain sentences without idioms or figures of speech that hide the actual message that you are trying to convey.
I may have trouble knowing how to make and keep friends but that doesn’t mean I don’t want friends. I long for friendships just like everyone else. I just face special challenges forming and maintaining them. I have the most trouble responding to social conflict, being able to understand unspoken romantic innuendos and coping with social anxiety. Just like you, I value the chance to share my thoughts and emotions with friends, and relish the support that friendships can provide.
I am particularly sensitive to gossip or being rejected by someone I care about and this causes me to experience a lot of social anxiety leading me to limit how much I socialize. Because of my anxiety, I may need to keep my interactions with other people short and may prefer to interact over the internet instead of in person, a lot of the time. My trouble understanding social expectations because of my inability to understand implied meaning may lead me to seem blunt or rude when I am just answering the question you that asked.
A Final Request
Most importantly, try to focus on what I can do instead of what I can’t. If you give me a chance, you will find that I am a clever, unique, and fun to be around, despite my quirks. Try to remember how frustrating and stressful it can be for me to try to navigate a social world that doesn’t attempt to meet me halfway. It is your patience and understanding that will make the difference for me. Accept me the way that I am, love me, interact with me in ways I can understand and let yourself enjoy the special qualities that I bring to the world.
Natalie C. Frank has a Ph.D. in clinical psychology. Her area of specialization is pediatrics and behavioral medicine.
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