People with autism may rush to the window if you tell them it’s raining cats and dogs. They may expect to see a poodle, Persian or pug falling down from the sky. Taking things literally is one aspect of autism which can lead to communication problems. However, with some practice, it’s possible to successfully communicate with people who have autism.
Autism is a complex disorder characterized by difficulty with social interactions and reading verbal and non-verbal cues. They may display repetitive behaviors such as rocking, finger flicking or opening and closing doors – sometimes for hours on end. Autism occurs in 1 out of 88 births in America today. For boys, that number is even higher. Approximately 1 in 54 boys are diagnosed with autism annually, according to Autism Speaks.
When meeting an adult, teen or child with autism; don’t raise your voice. They are not deaf. They can understand you but have difficulty communicating with you. Instead, smile and speak in a normal tone of voice just like you would when meeting anybody new.
Don’t talk down to them. Most people with autism have average and often above average intelligence. Treat them with respect and use the same words you use when speaking to friends, family or co-workers.
Don’t Force Eye Contact
Many people with autism find it hard to look someone in the eye. If this happens, don’t take it personally. Sometimes, people don’t realize that this is something that people with autism struggle with. Don’t insist that they look you in the eye, and don’t let it upset you.
Instead, look them in the eye, smile and converse with them the way you would with anybody else. But don’t stare. Look away every once in a while.
Be Specific and Literal
When talking to people with autism, say what you mean and be as specific and literal as possible. People with autism take things very literally. They don’t understand idioms such as: “It’s raining cats and dogs.” They think that dogs and cats are literally pouring down from the sky.
A better way to talk about the weather is to say something like: “It’s raining hard.” Or you can say: “There’s a lot of rain falling down today. “
In addition to avoiding idioms, don’t use certain types of humor such as puns. People with autism may not understand these plays on words. They may stare at you blankly instead of laughing at your joke.
Another important key to communicating with people who have autism is to avoid vague words and phrases. For example, how long is a long time?
Instead, be specific. For example, don’t say: “We will wait for the bus for a long time.” Instead, say, “We will wait for the bus at least 25 to 30 minutes.”
Use Commands Not Questions
In order to be polite, people often pose questions to each other instead of commands. For example, during dinner, you could ask the person across the table to pass the salt. “Can you pass the salt?” you might ask. However, if the person across from you has autism, he or she may say: “yes.” Then, you won’t get the salt passed to you. That’s because the person took your question literally.
Phrasing requests in the form of commands is a better option. Just say: “Please pass the salt.” The person with autism will interpret your command literally and will hand you the salt shaker.
Sometimes it helps to add the word “now.” People with autism may not know if you want the salt right away or in a few minutes. Saying the word “now” clarifies the issue.
Remember, speak naturally, specifically and literally to people with autism. Avoid questions. If you do this, both of you will understand each other better. Then, you both might gain a good friend in the process.
This article used some information from the Web site of Autism Speaks
This article was based on my experiences working with children and adults with autism for the past four years.