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4 Tips for Getting to Know an Autistic Person

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Note: There is a division in the autistic community as to preferences around calling someone an autistic person versus a person with autism. To be neutral on this matter, I use both in the following article.

Some people are easy to get to know. After brief chit-chat you have a pretty good idea of who they are, common interests, and where they register on your potential friend meter. Other times, someone may seem a little “off” or “odd.” It seems your new acquaintance isn’t making eye contact or totally grasping what you’re saying. Information gathering is largely absent; polite personal inquiries may not ensue. Even if your attentiveness inspires heaps of happily shared information, the exchange may not cultivate fertile soil for growing a mutually balanced friendship.

You might take an educated guess that the person you’re talking to is on the autism spectrum. Not engaging further is a common response. But what a loss! Autistic people have a lot to offer in their own unique and quirky way. Yet, it’s totally understandable that some people feel uncomfortable and keep their distance. It’s hard to socialize with someone whose responses are out of sync with what we are used to. And most of us haven’t been exposed to the notion of neurodiversity.

In his book “NeuroTribes,” Steve Silberman defines neurodiversity as “the notion that conditions like autism, dyslexia and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) should be regarded as naturally occurring cognitive variations with distinctive strengths that have contributed to the evolution of technology and culture rather than mere checklists of deficits and dysfunctions.”

Fortunately attitudes are beginning to change as many people know someone on the autistic spectrum and are eager to understand more. There are some fundamental differences in the way an autistic person processes shared social and environmental space as compared to a neurotypical individual. Being aware of these differences will help you to relate.

1. Take the time to get to know an autistic person.

Once you recognize that someone’s responses are out of sync and unexpected, look beyond missed social cues, an appearance of disinterest, and lack of initial emotional reciprocity to get to know the person. If it feels comfortable, gently redirect their soliloquy about Minecraft or a favorite Disney movie to a mutual exchange. At the same time, be accepting of and open to the neurological differences many people on the spectrum demonstrate. It can be extremely interesting and informative to discover how someone else’s mind works.

Sometimes these differences include an extraordinary ability to observe and explore things in depth. This hyper-focus has led to dramatic advancements in science, technology, art and industry over many hundreds of years by people who are considered to be on the autistic spectrum (Tesla, Einstein, Cavendish, Grandin etc.). Obviously not every autistic person is a genius or has a quirky mental talent, but many have a specialty, focus or viewpoint that is uniquely interesting.

2. Be understanding of sensory needs.

Notice sensory and perceptual differences and preferences because of the way the person’s autistic brain is wired. Often there are marked sensitivities to loud noises, common fabrics used in clothing, and the lighting used in stores and schools. Imagine the disadvantage of living in a world where just getting dressed or being at work or school may be extremely jarring, uncomfortable or painful. Keep this in mind when suggesting environments for socialization by avoiding loud and overly bright places like a high school basketball game or a busy restaurant.

3. Recognize that the autistic brain is wired differently.

One result can be difficulty seeing the whole picture, leading to a tendency to miss cues and overlook organizational patterns. This can wreak havoc on the executive functioning capabilities of many people with autism. One of my students needed to buy pancake batter at the local supermarket. Instead of looking at the signs above each aisle that would lead him to similar products, he began at the first aisle at one side of the store and attempted to look at every single item on each shelf to see if it was pancake batter. It would’ve taken hours if he hadn’t been coached to look up and see the organizational system in play. As a friend, or roommate or relative of someone who focuses mostly on trees, you can point out the forest. Help them be aware of the overarching pattern in various environments or concepts when necessary.

4. Be patient in social situations.

I’ve worked with many children on the spectrum who prefer limited social contact. Typical social exchanges take place faster than a sent text message. It’s often difficult for the autistic mind to process and respond in the expected time frame. Their subsequent reaction may be overly literal and out of sync with the rhythm of the conversation and therefore off-putting to others. This can lead to a continuous cycle of marginalization and bullying.

For these individuals, it often just feels safer and easier to isolate and find passions (video games, art, movies) that don’t require fast-paced social responses. It becomes incumbent upon the neurotypical person to have patience. This doesn’t mean you should indulge a social interaction that is one-sided and all about the interests of the person with autism. In fact, it means you keep sharing your likes and dislikes and preferences and delights in as balanced a way as you can. It’s helpful to avoid figurative language, stick to the point and slow your pace down a bit.

Perhaps the next time you meet someone who seems a bit awkward, or see someone off-kilter at a social gathering, or witness a person with strange mannerisms, take another look and try a new approach. The person may not fit into your predetermined social criteria as someone with whom you can easily align, but using the keys outlined here will help you unlock the door to building a meaningful relationship.

This story originally appeared on Social Eyes.

Getty image by DME Photography.

Originally published: March 6, 2019
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