You probably know someone with a mild form of autism. You might not know for sure, and, indeed, that person might not even know. It could be your neighbor, coworker, friend’s child or an acquaintance in, say, your book club or bowling league. Maybe it’s not readily apparent at first, but over time, you realize that it’s tough to make small talk with this person. It is socially awkward, so you stop trying. Maybe you’ve written him/her off for being rude.
While most attention goes to children, many adults with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) have never been diagnosed with it—partly because we are so much more knowledgeable about it now than we were even 15 years ago. So they have never received help in understanding themselves and communicating in a mostly nonautistic world. And that world often doesn’t have a clue how to interact with them.
That’s where your understanding comes in. Don’t worry—you don’t have to know for sure that someone has ASD to improve your approach. The truth is, it’s never a bad idea to reach out to anyone who is struggling in social situations or can’t seem to fit in at, say, the office.
DO YOU UNDERSTAND ASD?
Autism is a developmental disability that can affect a person’s ability to communicate, socialize and behave appropriately. People on the spectrum can range from those who are not verbal at all to those who have sophisticated vocabulary and strong language skills, yet still struggle with everyday banter.
Common misconception: Many people believe that people with ASD don’t need friends—that they’re introverts who are happy being alone. This couldn’t be further from the truth—most people with autism are socially motivated. They just need your understanding when they reach out. Here’s how…
YOUR NEW CONVERSATION SKILLS
Although communication skills vary greatly in people with ASD, in general such people have a hard time engaging in what we consider ordinary conversation. What that looks like: A person with ASD may find it hard to put words together to form longer sentences…to keep up with the rapid-fire exchanges of a spirited conversation…to ask follow-up questions to keep the back-and-forth going…to stay focused on what people are saying. Many with ASD have trouble establishing or maintaining eye contact even during one-on-one conversation. They also may take words literally when the words are not intended literally (which is often)…and misunderstand the meaning of slang phrases. Humor often relies on a play on words, so someone on the spectrum might completely miss a joke. And a nearly universal trait of people with ASD is difficulty picking up nonverbal cues, such as facial expressions, tone of voice or body language. Result: The conversation never really gets started…peters out quickly…or ends in misunderstanding and maybe even annoyance on the part of the nonautistic person. Tips for better conversations…
Be patient. People with ASD frequently have trouble processing spoken words and need time to figure out what you are saying. To help, slow down when you speak…and give them time to come up with a response.
Be kind. Don’t assume that someone who doesn’t dive into typical conversation is self-centered or aloof. He may have trouble focusing because he’s overwhelmed by sensory stimulation—people with ASD find many environments to be too loud, bright and/or smelly. They’re not being judgmental—they literally experience these sensory inputs in ways that are different.
Be very clear. Because of their difficulty picking up nonverbal cues, people on the spectrum may have difficulty detecting and understanding sarcasm, irony, innuendo or inside jokes. So be as direct and concrete as you can, and don’t take offense when the other person keeps asking questions to clarify what you mean.
Be understanding. People with ASD also can have an anxiety disorder or be nervous around others, often because they were bullied and laughed at when they were younger. That’s another reason that they may take longer to answer a question—they’re afraid of saying the wrong thing.
MANAGE SOCIAL INTERACTIONS BETTER
Two common behavioral features of autism are intensity and repetitive behavior. A child with autism, for example, may carefully line up his toys again and again—and have meltdowns when he’s asked to do something else. Autistic adults, too, may have more trouble than you would expect shifting from the topic or task at hand.
What that looks like: If he’s part of a conversation, a person on the spectrum might get very animated chatting about, say, the Beatles—but be utterly unable to chime in when the talk shifts to, say, the Rolling Stones. He may get very anxious when asked to multitask. How to interact more smoothly…
Manage expectations. We are used to people looking us in the eye and nodding their heads to show that they are paying attention to our conversation. Your bowling partner with ASD might not look up when you speak, but it doesn’t mean that she’s not listening.
Find creative solutions—and translate them into concrete steps. Sure, it’s irritating when someone in your book club highjacks the discussion about Emma to go on about 19th-century fashion. Instead of banning her from the book club, find a work-around that’s good for everyone. Example: Institute a rule that everyone gets to express her ideas for 10 minutes and then has to relinquish the discussion to the next person.
Give everyone a way to contribute. Your fellow choir member may not be verbally quick enough to share his song suggestions for the upcoming concert when everyone else is brainstorming out loud. So you can propose that members also e-mail their ideas later—or bring them to the next meeting.
Once you’re thinking along these lines, you’ll get in the habit of solving these little glitches easily.
LIVING AS NEIGHBORS AND FRIENDS
Autism is a spectrum. Some people diagnosed as children may need help with activities of daily living throughout their lives. But many learn to function well in society with a little help.
We often assume that people with disabilities such as ASD can’t lead fulfilling lives or fall in love, get married or make lifelong friends. But many can. Many do—and they are all around you. We can help by becoming more knowledgeable about this common disorder and showing empathy as they work on its challenges. We might even find that we’ve developed new friends.
DEALING WITH AUTISM IN THE OFFICE
Given their challenges in making small talk, understanding typical instructions and deviating from routine, adults with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) often struggle on the job. Many have trouble finding work and keeping it. Here’s what can help make the workplace more kind, inclusive and, yes, more productive…
Promote an atmosphere of understanding. Share what you have learned about autism with your colleagues. Things will go much smoother around the office if coworkers aren’t surprised by someone’s ASD-related behavior.
Speak concretely whenever possible. Avoid slang, and use simple, direct language instead.
Explain the culture. There may be unofficial customs that a typical person would simply “pick up,” but a person with ASD won’t. So tell your coworker if it’s the custom that everyone chips in for snacks…and that it’s fruitless talking to Jane in accounting before she’s had her coffee.
Put it in writing. If you need to give your coworker a set of instructions, e-mail her or write the instructions on paper instead of telling her verbally. Ditto for schedule changes.
Be clear about performance expectations. Let’s say that there is an urgent deadline. It might suffice for most people if you hint that this means a little sacrifice, but it’s better to say, “For the next three weeks, each of us will need to stay an extra hour each night or work at our desks at lunch to make this happen.” Otherwise, your coworker with ASD might take an hour-long lunch—because that’s what the employee handbook says.
Ask for input. Many of your coworkers may enjoy grabbing a beer after work occasionally, but the person with ASD may find the tumult of the bar overwhelming. To be more inclusive, offer everyone the opportunity to suggest different venues for out-of-office get-togethers, such as lunch in the park, a potluck at someone’s house or drinks at a quiet bar.