5 Ways to Support Individuals With Autism

Since its inception in 2007, the meaning of Autism Awareness Month, now called Autism Awareness and Acceptance Month, has undergone a dramatic transformation. We no longer spend the month of April hoping for a cure for autism spectrum disorders (ASD). Instead, in 2018, we spend April looking for ways we can support individuals with ASD and their families, listening to the voices of individuals with ASD, and looking forward to a future when people with ASD (and other disabilities) participate fully in the community.

This year’s Autism Awareness and Acceptance Month includes a vast number of blog posts and editorials written by individuals living with ASD (including this one!), a positive sign that progress is being made toward our goal. The YMCA of Greater Austin reached out to the Autism Society of Texas to ask if one of their constituents would be interested in writing a blog post for them about Autism Awareness and Acceptance Month. In response to that request, here’s a list of things you can do to support and promote the community involvement of individuals with ASD:

1. Understand ASD and listen to the voices of people with ASD. For most people, the words “socially awkward” are the first to come to mind when they think about the challenges of people with spectrum disorders. However, when I hear people say, “I’m socially awkward, I might be on the spectrum,” I usually respond with, “If you recognize that you were being socially awkward, you are most certainly not on the spectrum.”

Among other things, ASD causes motor clumsiness, unusual walking styles, and impaired awareness of placement in space (bumping into things); verbose language and/or language pragmatic difficulties such as poor volume regulation, poor conversation flow and inappropriate selection of topics, and echolalia; impaired or exceptionally sensitive sensory functioning and pain tolerance; and the appearance of disinterest including lack of eye contact, slow response time, and responses that miss the “main idea” of what has been said (seemingly off-topic responses). (Please see http://aspergers-mystery.blogspot.com/ for a fantastic list of typical ASD behaviors associated with each of the domains of the disorder).

For people with ASD, behaviors characterized as socially awkward are not behaviors we have chosen. When someone tells you they have ASD, it is important to understand that what you call socially awkward behavior is evidence of a major life challenge for the person you are talking to.  

2. Use clear and explicit language with friends who have ASD. One characteristic of ASD is an overly literal understanding of language. As a child, when my mom referred to my “bottom,” my responses were typically about my feet. I was in graduate school when I realized that when your professor asks you if you are going to edit a manuscript, you are being TOLD to edit the manuscript.

Recently, my boss daydreamed aloud for a major change to be made to the format of our materials, and when I mistakenly implemented the change to my drafts (to her surprise) I had to clarify “You said you wish that change could be made, so I made it.” She has graciously adopted a practice of telling me exactly what I should do as a list of instruction, gives me the time to state back to her what I have heard, and clarifies any misunderstandings. 

One easy step you can take to promote workplace and community success among folks with ASD is to speak in clear and measureable terms. Provide direct instructions and answers to questions. Avoid “beating around the bush” or letting individuals with ASD down easily. The person you are speaking to has a very low probability of inferring the hidden meaning of what you are saying, and you are likely to experience frustration when asked day after day after day if you would like to sit down for lunch together.

3. Ask families how you can help. I am of the opinion that the experts on ASD are the immediate families of individuals with ASD. It is surprising that this still must be said in 2018, but when you meet a parent or sibling of someone with ASD, the best course of action is not to ask them “What happened?” or to offer treatment advice. The tip I offer here extends to families of all children—if you see a family in need, ask what you can do to help. Then give your help without judgment and in the way it was asked.

4. Recognize that ASD and other disabilities are not obstacles to overcome. The past 20 years have been remarkable for progress in how the general public views individuals with disabilities. It is no longer socially progressive to label individuals who adjust their bodies and functioning to societies’ norms as “successful.” Rather, we now work for a world where all doors are open to every individual, regardless of body type or cognitive functioning.

5. Support funding for programs.  Public school and social programs are the foundation of successful outcomes for individuals with and without disabilities.  When you use your voice to promote quality education and services for children with disabilities, you are using your voice to promote quality and education for all children. 

To learn more about what you can do for people with ASD from the mouth of people with ASD, I would encourage you to check out Steve Silberman’s seminal blog post “Why “Autism Awareness” is Not Enough: Steve Silberman (and friends) explain “Autism Acceptance” (http://blogs.plos.org/neurotribes/2016/04/04/autism-awareness-is-not-enough-heres-how-to-change-the-world/) which was influential in the development of this post. 

The Autism Society of America, the nation’s leading grassroots autism organization, exists to improve the lives of all affected by autism. The Autism Society of Texas is one of 106 affiliates of the Autism Society of America. We do this by increasing public awareness about the day-to-day issues faced by people on the spectrum, advocating for appropriate services for individuals across the lifespan, and providing the latest information regarding treatment, education, research and advocacy.

All opinions expressed here are those of their authors and/or contributors and not of their employer. Any questions or concerns regarding the content found here may be sent to info@austinymca.org

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