January 21, 2021

How to help autistic people

By rosieweldon

Earlier this week I went through eight ways not to help autistic people. Today, here are eight ways to help autistic people:

1.       Listen and learn.

There are lots of resources to learn about autism from, from textbooks to online blogs. The most important part of learning about autism is to ensure it is coming from a variety of sources. Reading professionally written textbooks is great, but it needs accompanying with reading about real-life autistic experiences.
But often the way to learn that gets forgotten is from the actual autistic person themselves. Of course, this can be challenging as autism is largely a communication disorder and it can be difficult for autistic people to articulate their thoughts. However, I think you’d be surprised how much insight you would gain from asking an autistic child how they felt when the change happened. Was it frustrating? Did it make them angry? Scared? Were they tired after? Of course, don’t overload in the moment. But openly discussing their autistic behaviours and thoughts will help, both in them understanding themselves and you learning how to best support them.

2.       Adjust.
It can be very frustrating when someone claims to ‘accept autism’ but equally expects us to do everything the same way as everyone else. Our minds work differently, we are going to need to do things differently sometimes. When I first started staying at my partners house, I had my dinner upstairs in the bedroom. It was an out of the box solution for an autism driven problem. The world is not designed for autistic minds, so sometimes we need to adjust things in our environment to cope, let alone be happy.

3.       Forget about it.

Autistic life is often a roller coaster of peaks and dips. A moment of heightened emotion or meltdown from overload. After these moments pass, they can often be followed by feelings of guilt or shame. If I am particularly emotional one night, I am likely to wake up in the morning feeling silly about it. The best thing someone can do in this situation is just not bring it up. So, we had a meltdown because we were struggling, and we cried. So, we shut ourselves in our room because we couldn’t cope with the noise of a busy lounge. After this has happened and we have regained composure the best thing to do is let it go.
(Of course, as in point 1, if you don’t understand why it happened then by all means open a dialogue about it).

4.       Plan.

While blogs like this and reading textbooks is great, they are nothing without personalising support to the individual person. It is always best to have a rough plan of how to support that person in a meltdown, shutdown or overload. Talk about things like if are they touch averse in certain situations? Do they have a safe place to retreat to? If the autistic person is a child and/or non-verbal then you can still have an action plan. For example, if you are having some people over then have the headphones in a separate room ready for them to retreat to. If you are eating somewhere then do you need to take your own food? Or phone ahead and see if they can accommodate the dietary needs? There is no point burying your head in the sand and hoping autistic behaviour doesn’t’ occur. We can’t control it. We can’t stop it. Weddings, parties, even funerals. We are still autistic. It is better for everyone to have a plan in place of how to support the autistic person, should they struggle.

5.       Special interests.
When the world is loud, special interests give us peace. When the world is chaotic, special interests give us calm. I’ve always thought of special interests as a self-coping mechanism built into autistic people to help us cope with the intense nature of our lives. I might have struggled through my A-levels, but I was lucky to get that feeling of immense calm from opening a Harry Potter book. It always felt like the wizarding world was there to wrap its arms around me and make me feel safe again.
In the same way those supporting autistic people can use special interests. If you are trying to engage with an autistic child, then it is likely their special interests will help you do so. It never fails to amaze me when people try to distance autistic people from their ‘obsessions’. My interest in Harry Potter has never hindered me nor held me back, it has only ever helped me get through the challenges I have gone up against.

6.       Stop and think.
If an autistic person reacts to something please don’t assume the worst, especially when it comes to autistic children. If an autistic child throws something and runs out the room, please don’t instinctively think they are misbehaving. Stop and think. Stop and think, has something happened that they are struggling with? Was it noisy and they couldn’t cope? Was there some kind of change in the room?
Don’t get me wrong autistic children can be naughty just as much as any other child. But it breaks my heart to think of autistic children being told off for reactions that were caused by autistic distress. If an autistic child is having a meltdown then they need support, not reprimanding.
The same goes for autistic adults. Many times, I have had someone have a go at me for something and then when I’ve explained why I did it, be met with ‘oh, I didn’t know’. You aren’t always going to know when our reactions are because of struggling with something, I just ask you to stop and consider in those moments before getting at us for a behaviour that may be outside of our control.
There is a reason I constantly refer to having patience in my blogs. It can be incredibly hard to do in the moment, but most of the time what we need most, is time. Stop, think, and have patience with us.

7.       Work with autism.
That autistic person you are supporting – they are always going to be autistic. You can not turn autism on and off. There is absolutely no point fighting back against autism, it isn’t going anywhere. My autistic traits are part of who I am. I learned the hard way that the only way to ‘live with autism’, is to do exactly what that says and live with it. Autism isn’t always a bad thing; autistic traits can be brilliant. Like with the special interest example, there are many other ways to work with autism. Many of us find certain sensory experiences calming. Many of us have same foods. If we aren’t eating, revert to our same foods. If we are in distress, help us with sensory friendly environments. If we are on the edge of overload, maybe a sensory fidget toy will help us calm.
Going head-to-head with autism is pointless. Work around things, over things, find ways to work with autism.

8.       Little things.
The people in my life that support me the most are those that do constant little things. The teachers that looked the other way when I snuck into the hallways at lunch time, the siblings that ordered food for me, my partner who will warn me if there’s a different smell in a room. Yes, autistic life has the big moments, the meltdowns and shutdowns and everything in between. But the biggest impact on my quality of life is in the day-to-day things. The things most people think are little, but to me, they really aren’t that little at all.

These are just some approaches and things people do that can help me as an autistic adult. Autistic life is a battle against the tide, living in a world not designed for us. Autistic life is loud, chaotic and often scary. To those of you reading this that are supporting us and trying to make things easier – thank you. Whether you are a parent trying to do right by your child, or someone who just wants to ensure they are better equipped to support us – you really do make all the difference to our lives.

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