Happy Autism Awareness month and Happy Occupational Therapy month this April! What better way to celebrate than by sharing some tips on how to be a friend to someone with Autism from an OT!
Most likely, you know someone with Autism. Most likely, you want to be kind and friendly with them, but are not quite sure how to interact and go about building a friendship. They may act differently from you, but they share a similar desire to have a friend with whom they feel safe. They and their families appreciate when someone will take the time to really get to know them and build a friendship. Over many years, I’ve been able to enjoy many friendships with people who have Autism. My Autistic friends make me smile! I’m grateful for the many lessons they’ve taught me and the memorable moments we’ve shared.
CHARACTERISTICS OF AUTISM
When interacting with someone with Autism, it’s important to recognize the basic defining characteristics of Autism. As you’ll notice, these defining characteristics listed below make social interactions especially difficult for them. Recognize that all these characteristics may make the Autistic person uneasy with a new person initiating social interaction, but does not mean people with Autism do not want friends!
- Social Skill Difficulties
- Communication Difficulties
- Repetitive Behaviors, Routines and Isolated Interests
- Sensory Processing Difficulties
“Autism Spectrum Disorder” is the official name of the Autism diagnosis. “Spectrum” is used to define a very wide variety of behaviors that encompasses the above characteristics. Each person with Autism will exhibit these characteristics very differently. Each person with Autism is unique and building a friendship with them will mean you must get to know each individually. Below are some clusters of behavior you may see from people on the Autism Spectrum.
Social Skill Difficulties:
- May not make eye contact; may be uncomfortable being close in proximity to new people; may find different ways to get your attention, such as throwing objects.
- May not recognize social cues as to when to stop talking; may not recognize how to enter a group to socialize; may have difficulty learning to share with others.
- May not speak, but understands many words or phrases; may only repeat words or phrases; may use alternative ways to communicate, such as pictures or hand gestures.
- May speak and understand well, but very literally; may not communicate tactfully; may talk excessively.
Repetitive Behaviors, Routines and Isolated Interests:
- May use movements, such as flapping hands or rocking back and forth, when excited or nervous; may enjoy playing with the same objects or doing the same activities over and over, such as lining up cars or watching fans spin; may get nervous and upset when going to new places, getting new shoes, having furniture moved out of their familiar spot or having new people in their safe environments at home or school.
- May want to talk about the same topic in detail all the time, such as Minecraft, Pokemon or dinosaurs; may not recognize subtle social cues that you are ready to change subjects or stop talking; may get stressed or not function well through seemingly small changes, such as a new haircut, long holiday weekends or an assembly that changes the school schedule.
Sensory Processing Difficulties:
- May be over-sensitive to normal amounts of sensory input around us: such as lights seeming to be too bright; noises seeming to be too loud and needing to cover his/her ears; being startled and seeming to over-react to accidental bumps or a pat on the back; refusing to touch or wear certain textures; being bothered or distracted by smells; being unable to tolerate tasting a variety of foods; being scared of movement activities, such as swinging.
- May be under-sensitive to normal amounts of sensory input around us: intensely staring or watching others or objects, such as spinning fans or wheels; frequently humming or making his/her own noises; craving hugs, always fidgeting or seeking out certain textures to touch; smelling people and objects; licking, mouthing and chewing on many different objects, not just food; craving movement, such as spinning, jumping and rocking.
HELP THEM FEEL SAFE
When you approach someone with Autism, address them by name in a pleasant, non-intrusive way. Be calm, avoid light touches and loud entrances so you don’t startle them until you become familiar with their sensory processing preferences. Be sure to be predictable or tell them what you’re doing so they know what to expect.
Watch and observe to see if they have a toy, a book or maybe a shirt that they may have an interest in. How can you find a way to interact over something that feels safe or enjoyable to them? With people who speak, you can discuss the subject, listen and ask questions and share their interest. With people who don’t speak, how can you enjoy an activity together? Maybe you can hand them cars from a pile as they line them up, careful not to interfere in their routine. Maybe you can both hit balloons up into the air together.
LET THEM SET THE PACE
Some people with Autism may need to take your interaction slower than you’re used to. They may not be ready to look at you, respond to you or answer your questions. These behaviors don’t mean they’re not listening. You can tell them, “That’s ok. We can talk more in a while. I can wait.” Try again later. It may be that you have to do this over several encounters until they are comfortable with you. They might be willing to give high fives or fist bumps before they are ready to talk.
Don’t give up! And don’t ignore them! Most people with Autism understand more than you realize and feel the effects of being ignored. Be patient and keep trying to be friends with them.
Some Autistic people will be overly excited and want all your attention. When you’re first making friends with them, share that excitement and give them attention. After your friendship is built and you learn to trust each other, you can start to change the pace slowly to also meet your needs by talking frankly, but politely. “Hey, how about you spend a few more minutes talking about Minecraft and then I can tell you about the new things I did yesterday?!”
DON’T BE OFFENDED BY THEIR BEHAVIOR AND COMMUNICATION
Don’t assume that people with Autism are being rude, disrespectful or selfish as they interact with you or others. If you find yourself thinking that their behavior or communication is any of these things, remember they inherently process information and think differently than you, especially social communication. Quickly forgive any offense and be patient as they learn. Just as you are learning how to interact with them, they are learning how to interact with you.
Be sure to clearly tell them what behaviors you appreciate in your friendship, such as, “I like when you smile at me when you see me! It makes me feel like we are friends!” or “Thank you for sharing your toys with me! I have fun playing with you!”
POLITELY ASK SINCERE QUESTIONS
If you ever have questions about how to be a friend to someone with Autism, be sure to ask parents, teachers or friends who know him/her well. They will have insight into their interests, comforts and unique ways of socializing and communicating with others. Many parents and teachers are very happy to help others willing to take the time to understand and get to know their child/student.
If you are in a teaching capacity for someone with Autism, recognize that maintaining a safe and trusting relationship with these principles will create a crucial foundation before you can help them stretch outside their comfort zone.
Enjoy the journey of friendship with your unique friends with Autism!
“The most I can do for my friend is simply be his friend.” –Henry David Thoreau