A lesson on autism: It's as simple as practicing kindness and awareness
Whether or not you have someone in your circle who is in the autism community, it's likely at some point you may come across someone who is, so it is beneficial to take steps to learn more about autism and how best to communicate with people who are on the autism spectrum.
"It comes down to simply being a good neighbor," said Dr. Jennifer Carlson, a psychologist with The Pritzker Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Health at Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children's Hospital of Chicago. Carson offers mindful behaviors on building trust, communication and real-time reactions to better support the autism community.
While her suggestions are universal and can be applied to all types of relationships, they serve as a particularly important learning opportunity and discussion topic for adults and kids alike when it comes to autism.
For starters, people within the autism community may have varied thoughts and feelings about how they want to be addressed. Some prefer "autistic individual," while others are more comfortable with "individual with autism."
"The best and most appropriate thing we can do is to let the person we're engaging with lead and tell us, whether explicitly or by example, how they identify with this language and how we can mirror that," said Carlson.
Eliminating guessing and assumption can help build trust in relationships, neurotypical or otherwise.
Communication styles and preferences are also unique to each person within the autism community.
It's unrealistic to think every interaction will look the same, and rather than assuming someone doesn't understand a conversation or is unable to respond, consider that vocal speech may not be how they feel most comfortable communicating.
"This doesn't mean conversation isn't possible with autistic individuals, just that we should pay closer attention to their strengths and abilities and meet them there. Inquiring about how someone communicates vs. asking if they are verbal or nonverbal gives us a chance to do that," said Carlson.
Promoting strong communication with friends and family in the autism community also means being more proactive in setting them up for success when it's applicable. Social situations can be challenging and confusing for some people, so rather than waiting for them to misinterpret other's unspoken intentions in conversation, kindly offer them the tools they might need to feel or act more comfortable in that setting.
"Using figures of speech or sarcasm can be easily misinterpreted. It can be helpful to remember to say what you mean and mean what you say. And if you're unsure of how to be helpful, just ask," said Carlson.
People with autism can be highly sensitive and reactive to jarring sensory stimuli (noises, lights, or smells), crowded spaces, changes in their routine, social situations, among other scenarios. Sometimes reactions to these triggers escalate in public, and onlookers aren't sure how to respond.
"The best thing to do during a public meltdown is to refrain from judgment and criticism of the individual and their parent/caregiver, remain calm and offer support, whether physical or emotional," said Carlson.
Rarely there is enough background information to form opinions or make sweeping generalizations on a situation while it's happening. Stopping to recognize that meltdowns are always preceded by a highly distressing situation unique to the individual will result in more caring and understanding support or action.
Learn more about the autism community from The Pritzker Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Health at Lurie Children's and check out:
• 14 Books Featuring Autistic Characters, Harper Collins Publishers
• Autism Acceptance Month: Tips for Supporting Adults on the Autism Spectrum, Indiana Resource Center for Autism
• Students on the Spectrum Club Participants Share Personal Perspectives on Autism Awareness and Acceptance, Indiana Resource Center for Autism
• A Message to Novices and Strangers to ASD: Look for Behavioral Communication, Indiana Resource Center for Autism
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a neurological and developmental disorder that affects how people interact with others, communicate, learn, and behave. Although autism can be diagnosed at any age, it is described as a "developmental disorder" because symptoms generally appear in the first two years of life.
People of all genders, races, ethnicities and economic backgrounds can be diagnosed with ASD. Although ASD can be a lifelong disorder, treatments and services can improve a person's symptoms and daily functioning. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that all children receive screening for autism. Caregivers should talk to their child's health care provider about ASD screening or evaluation. To learn more visit, www.nimh.nih.gov.
• Children's health is a continuing series. This week's article is courtesy of Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children's Hospital of Chicago. For more information, visit www.LurieChildrens.org.