Because of the complexities of the diagnosis, autism families are often left feeling overwhelmed and isolated. By the same token, friends, classmates, and community members are often unsure the best way to offer support. Whether you know someone with autism or you just want to know the best ways to respond if you and your child meet someone on the spectrum, it’s important to make sure your family understands autism enough to make that person feel comfortable and included.
April is Autism Awareness Month, and we’ve put together some do’s and don’ts for supporting kids on the autism spectrum. Let’s take this month of April to learn how to make their lives a little bit easier.
Give them the opportunity to be included in everything.
Assume they won’t be interested in something because of their actions. Autism almost always affects social interactions. They may need more guidance in order to participate.
Include them in conversations, whether they can speak or not.
Assume that if their speech is limited they can’t understand those around them.
Invite them again and again to birthday parties, playdates, neighborhood gatherings.
Feel bad or stop trying if they say no, leave early, or don’t show up. Autism can be very unpredictable from day to day.
Be sensitive to noisy or over stimulating activities. If you notice the noise level in a room is high or other children are extra excitable, ask the child or their parent if everything is okay or offer a quiet place to escape to when needed.
Assume you have to be an autism expert to be a friend. An open, honest conversation with an autism parent can go a long way.
Talk to your children about autism. General autism education is helpful, but every child with autism is unique with different strengths, behaviors, and supports. So it’s also helpful to ask a teacher or an autism family you know for tips on how to best explain the child yours is around most, to get more specific ways your child can be a good friend to that individual.
Feel bad for telling your child someone has autism and having conversations about it. You aren’t singling that child out or labeling them, you’re explaining what makes them unique to help your own child be a better friend. Kids are so much more comfortable interacting with someone once they have the tools to do so.
Teach your kids not to stare when they see someone with autism exhibiting unfamiliar behaviors. Learn about common behaviors in autism WITH your child. Help them discover when it’s best to offer support and when it’s best to give space and understanding.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), signs of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) vary widely from person to person, ranging in intensity from gifted to challenged. However, some symptoms and behaviors you or your child might notice include:
- Avoiding eye contact
- Repetitive motions such as hand flapping, rocking their body, or spinning (these might seem unusual, but are very helpful for some people with autism as a way to self-regulate—this behavior isn’t really any different than a neurotypical friend who self-regulates by twirling their hair, for example)
- Strong reactions to stimuli such as loud sounds, touch, or smells
- Delayed speech, language, or motor skills
- Repeating words over and over
- Giving unrelated answers to questions
- Flat or inappropriate facial expressions
- Trouble understanding jokes or sarcasm
If you don’t know the child in question, the best response might be a supportive smile to their caregiver. If you do know them, try asking their parent or caregiver how best to respond—they know better than anyone what would be helpful—until you know how to support that individual yourself.
Pretend autism doesn’t exist or ignore people exhibiting autistic behaviors as a way of being “polite.”
According to the CDC autism affects 1 in 54 children. It is a pervasive disorder affecting not only the individual but the whole family. So acknowledge autism, talk about it, smile at the mom with the melting down teenager, volunteer your children as peer supports at school or in recreational programs. Making space for those with autism in our everyday lives—ensuring they’re included, that they have opportunities to learn, work and play, and that their family is supported—is the best way we can honor them during Autism Awareness Month.