Six simple, positive ways to engage with someone with autism

U of A autism expert gives advice to help you interact in a supportive way with children and adults on the spectrum-and check your own biases.

Lesley Young - 15 September 2019

Original story: Folio

Artwork by Natasia Designs

Considering one in 66 Canadian children is diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders (ASD), chances are if you don't already live and work with people with ASD, at some point you will be interacting with someone who is on the spectrum.

To help ensure effective communication, here are some pointers from Lonnie Zwaigenbaum, Distinguished Researcher in the Stollery Science Lab.

Be flexible

People with ASD have an incredibly diverse range of language abilities. "That's why the very best way to begin an interaction (with someone) is to find out what his or her preferred mode of communication is―verbal, electronic or some other non-verbal communication tool developed for them-and start with that mode if possible," said Zwaigenbaum.

Be clear and quiet

"It is possible to find ways to communicate clearly with each person." Change how you speak if necessary. If the setting is noisy, move the conversation to a quiet place.

Be empathetic

Be compassionate and respectful and, if you sense you've upset someone with ASD, clarify, reassure and apologize.

Be patient

"Some people with autism may take a while to think through what you're saying and figures of speech may be more difficult to interpret," explained Zwaigenbaum.

Be gracious

Recognize that someone with ASD may speak more bluntly than others, but without negative intentions.

"Some people with autism may have difficulty anticipating how others might react to what they say, so they may come across as speaking 'without much of a filter'-that is, more blunt or direct than expected," said Zwaigenbaum. "Of course, some people find this very refreshing, too, to know where you stand with someone."

Be yourself

It may be difficult for some people with ASD to interpret others' non-verbal signals such as facial expressions. "Others may think the person with ASD seems disinterested when in fact they greatly desire social connection."

Invite them into conversation as you would with any other person, advised Zwaigebaum; make them feel welcome.