Communication Practices for Interacting with Individuals with Autism
Milestones.org January 2022
Everyone has different strengths, interests, needs and challenges. Just like with any other friend, colleague, or acquaintance, learning these are the first step to positive relationships and communication.
Autistic people bring new perspectives and ideas, enriching our communities and workplaces with their gifts inspired from seeing the world in different ways. With 1 in 44 American children now diagnosed with some form of autism, if you think you don’t know anyone with autism you might be wrong. Being part of the wider community and developing relationships benefits everyone.
We offer these tips and insights to achieve positive relationships and community, understanding more about what being on the autism spectrum means. Depending on the age and ability of the individual you may adapt different communication strategies and accommodations. These techniques are good to use with anyone, regardless of whether they are neurotypical or have ASD. Be respectful, ask what the person prefers, likes, and needs.
Ways to Build Relationships and Rapport
- Be patient while having a conversation, giving the person time to answer.
- Always strive to be encouraging and compassionate.
- Learn about their favorite interests, games or hobbies and try to find common ones.
- Be aware of the tendency by autistic people to speak at length about their favorite topics which may require some gentle prompting or redirection.
- Sustaining conversation can also be challenging. You can support them by offering choices, suggesting topics, or bridging the conversation to a topic you know they can discuss.
- Offer concise directions or clear choices. For example, “Would you like to take a walk or ride our bikes?
- Provide specific praise such as “I liked the way you waited for me before leaving the room” instead of a vague “good job” so they understand what behavior you are seeking from them.
- To make your own communication clearer, share with the individual what you want them to do rather than what you don’t want them to do (i.e. Instead of saying “don’t run,’ it’s better to say “please walk in the hall.”)
- Don’t be offended by lack of eye contact, motor tics or a lack of understanding personal boundaries. These are common challenges for an autistic person.
- Understand that autistic people like routines and schedules.
- Autistic people tend to think literally, so it is best to avoid idioms and slang.
Pointers to help autistic people if they get off topic or spend too much time on a topic:
Gentle nudge or prompt to get back on topic such as, what were we talking about again? Or redirect them by bringing up the topic you were originally discussing like, where should we go for lunch? It sounds like you love Chinese food, how about XYZ place at 11:45 am? (Ideally somewhere not too loud or at crowded time)
So, to summarize, our next steps are XYZ, your part will be this and it will be due by x date. Does that seem to cover what we discussed?
In a kind yet concrete way, say, I hear you really like talking about dinosaurs, but I am not really interested in that and don’t want to talk about it anymore, can we talk about something we are both interested in? Then suggest something that you have in common or could such as favorite movies or food.
Social communication can be challenging for autistic people. They may have different perceptions of spheres of social norms for different types of people. For example, understanding that a teacher or supervisor is not equated with a social friend. Or the difference between a friend and a friendly acquaintance. They may not realize the appropriate amount of personal space to give people. Autistic people tend to be more literal so it’s helpful to offer them gentle but direct guidance in a kind voice.
If you need to help someone with boundary issues:
- If they seem to stand too close to you, be kind but gently direct. For example, you could say could you please stand about this far apart from me when we’re talking? Thanks so much. (You can raise your arm a little to give an idea of how far apart you mean.)
- If the person touches your hair, hugs you inappropriately or similar physical interaction, you can start by moving away out of reach. If it is persistent or bothersome, ask the person to stop. You could also distract them by redirecting them to move their attention to something else like an activity. You can also model the physical distance and appropriate place for your own hands at your sides, in your pocket, arms folded and the like.
- If the person shares personal information, you’re not comfortable with because you’re not a friend or that close to them, try to change the subject to something more appropriate. If that doesn’t work, you can gently tell them that topic is a little too personal.
Provide options for how the person prefers to communicate, whether texting on phone, emailing or face to face conversation. Don’t assume everyone wants to communicate in the exact same way. Making the purpose or reason for the communication clear (i.e., in college is it social or class project) helps the autistic person prepare and sets expectations.
Autistic people do well with clarity and structure. However, it doesn’t need to be formal. An agenda is not necessary, just sharing the topic like, we’re going to meet to plan logistics for a specific event.
Be aware that some people have more limited abilities or preferences with communication modes so may need to use nonverbal approaches whether picture schedules, tablets, gesturing or picture exchange systems.
Managing Sensory Issues
Autistic people may have sensory challenges with touch, sound, light, smell, or taste more intensely than neurotypical people. You can be helpful and sensitive to them by thinking about loud sounds, bright lights, strong smells, and food issues that might be most difficult for your autistic friend or colleague.
For meetings or business interactions, think about how to be considerate to their needs. For example, avoid restaurants or meeting locations that have intense sensory experiences. Minimize distractions by choosing a quiet, uncluttered location which as a side benefit may help your team focus better. Could look at it as providing soothing, peaceful and Zen/meditation like vs the gamified colorful bright vibrant places
When overstimulated an autistic person may use different self-soothing strategies including leaving the room or area to avoid a meltdown or shutdown. Or they may just have a difficult time focusing and doing their best.
Consider having sensory friendly meeting areas or classrooms, for example with dimmed lights, comfy chairs, limited distractions in the room, neutral colors.
With people who are more impacted, they will have higher needs in areas such as communication and sensory issues and will need more extensive support in daily living. However, being nonverbal does not necessarily mean higher impacted. Don’t presume a person’s intellectual capacity based on their being low-verbal or nonverbal.
- Pause after giving directions to allow the person to process the verbal information.
- Offer to provide simply worded written directions or a checklist for routine or novel tasks.
- Give the person choices in the conversation (i.e., “Would you like a sandwich or pizza?”).
- Questions should be worded to only provide acceptable options when possible. For example, if a boss says, “Would you like to join us in this meeting?” the autistic person saying “no” and returning to their desk is a potential response. This is because a command is being worded as a question. In this case, instead, say, “Please come with us for a meeting in the conference room at 10:00 am.” (You may need to come gets them depending on their level of functioning.)
- Have the person repeat important information to confirm understanding (i.e., Ask, “Where are we going?” after you’ve shared that information).
- Use pictures or drawings to help the person communicate (i.e., pictures of food or activity choices).
- Visual schedules in which you provide a photo or graphic to designate different activities planned can also be helpful.
- Although some people can carry on conversations that last for hours, some individuals may only be able to answer a single question or engage in in a conversation for 5 minutes. In these situations, building in breaks for the individual can be productive and help them stay calmer and more focused.
If Someone Is Nonverbal
- Ask the individual or their caregiver how they prefer to communicate.
- Learn what assistive devices or techniques they may use. For example, visual schedule, iPad apps, text-to-speech or other voice assistant apps in which person touches something on their device to speak for them.
- Always look at the individual who you are trying to communicate with, not their caregiver. If you were using a translator for a person speaking a different language you would look at the person you want to communicate with, not the translator.
- Pair your verbal communication with gestures (point to where you want them to hang their coat or nod your head yes to confirm a response).
- If using an assistive device, give them enough time to type in their responses.
- Don’t talk about them in front of them like they aren’t there.
- Always face them when talking to them even if they don’t appear to be paying attention.
- Always communicate what you are doing even if you don’t think they understand.
How to Be a Friend to Someone with ASD
- The best way to be supportive and develop a good relationship with anyone is by asking how you can be a good friend, colleague, etc. So don’t be afraid to ask your autistic friend, “How can I be a better friend?”
- Listen and don’t be quick to give an answer or response when spending time with your autistic friend. Simply be there to give a listening ear. You may have to wait longer for a response or possibly weed through a lengthy explanation, but you will learn something new in the end.
- Support your friend if they ask for help. Be sensitive to what they want and need, not just how you think they should improve or behave.
- Try not to talk over or about them when others are around.
- Help them work on social skills by trying to engage them in conversations with yourself and others.
- Find discrete ways to give social hints. Build up their confidence in the same way that you would support any other friend in a challenging situation.
- Try not to jump in and make choices for your friend in a social situation.
- Thinking about when you are going to get together with a friend is important. Preventing uncomfortable situations is far easier than dealing with them once they happen. Instead of heading to your favorite brunch spot at 11:00 a.m. on a Sunday morning, try going after the rush at 2:00 p.m. or if you know there’s going to be a long line or wait somewhere, plan to arrive early (or late) to avoid the crowds.