January 21, 2021

How not to help autistic people

By rosieweldon

People do many things to help and support me, as an autistic adult. But some people do things that either don’t support me, or outright make the situation worse. This can be both in purposefully fuelling the problem, or from a well-intended place of trying to help.

These are some of the things people have done that have made my personal situations worse. Here are the eight things people do that really just don’t help:

1.       Question us.

Non-autistic people are not always going to understand why I can’t do something. But there is a huge difference in not understanding, and not believing. Just because you don’t understand how being touched can be distressful, does not mean it isn’t for a lot of autistic people.  

2.       Pressure us to deal with it quickly.

A big part of autism is in our processing differences. Processing information in real time is extremely difficult, especially if this relates to emotions, subjectivity or a lot of sensory information. In any situation, putting pressure on an autistic person to overcome something quickly is never going to help. Putting a time limit on us is not going to speed up the process – in fact it is highly likely to make it worse and result in it taking us longer to find composure.

3.       Judge us.

This is a common one among family and friends of autistic people – especially autistic children. So, your child eats balanced meals three times a day, but the autistic child has a restricted diet of dry pasta every night? So, your child can sleep in their own bed, but the autistic child has to co-sleep in order for them and the parent to get any sleep? So, who cares? Nobody should be held up and measured against others, but certainly not those of us who literally have minds incapable of behaving like the majority of society.
Being autistic and/or supporting someone who is is hard enough without others putting their opinions in when they aren’t needed.

4.       Touch us.

If an autistic person is touch averse, either always or in certain situations, don’t touch them! Don’t touch them when they are struggling. Don’t touch them in a meltdown. Just don’t touch them. If they are crying and it is your instinct to want to hug them, don’t touch them. If you want to show them you care, don’t touch them. Just don’t touch an autistic person unless they want to be touched.
(Obviously unless they are putting themselves in imminent danger)

5.       Overload us.

This is one that definitely comes from a place of wanting to help. If an autistic person is facing a situation that they are struggling with, bombarding them with communication is not going to help. Asking them one hundred questions is likely to make it much worse for them and tip them towards or further into a meltdown. A lot of people do it to figure out how to help. ‘Why is the burger wrong?’ and ‘I’ll cook you something else, what do you want?’ You want to help but the fact is you aren’t. At the point an autistic mind is really struggling you need to wait before you can communicate about the problem. After the autistic person has calmed down then absolutely offer ways to help. But don’t try and solve a problem in the peak of an autistic reaction. It will make it worse for us.

6.       Create an us and them.

‘Person A doesn’t have a problem with it, so why do you?’
Well, I don’t know, maybe because we are two completely different people. Even two autistic people are completely different and may have completely different reactions to the same situation. I so often get it thrown at me that others aren’t reacting the way I am, so I shouldn’t be.

Telling me that others would be fine is not going to take away my struggle. You can not turn autism off and on. All that saying it is going to do is make me feel guilty for my inability to react the way others have.

7.       Addressing the response over the trigger.
It is alarmingly common in autistic people to have the reaction addressed more than the trigger. By this I mean an autistic person struggles with something, then everyone focuses on their ‘unreasonable’ reaction. It often gets lost that the only reason the autistic person is reacting like that is because of the trigger that they are struggling with.
If an autistic child throws something across the room because they are in a meltdown then there is a reason for that meltdown, something caused it. By all means when the situation is over have a conversation about throwing things, but do not do so at the dismissal of what they were originally struggling with. We deserve help for the reason that we started to struggle and maybe lost control.

8.       Mock our special interests.

Special interests are hugely important to autistic people. If I am struggling, engaging with Harry Potter is like being reminded to breathe again. When I get hooked on a song it’s like I need it to function. I wake up and it’s the first thing I think about. I need to hear the song on a loop. So, to have someone laugh at that, it’s not nice. Not only does it hit me in the sense that I like that thing deeply and someone is insulting it, but it also feels humiliating. Special interests feel very much like an instinctive pull to something. I didn’t sit down and choose Harry Potter and music to mean so much to me, they just do. So, I can feel a little ashamed of that connection if someone comes out and laughs at its importance to me. We all like different things, autistic people just tend to have a stronger connection to things.

Supporting an autistic person doesn’t come with a guidebook. You aren’t always going to get it right. These are just some of the things people do that can make the situation worse. In my next blog post I will go through the top helpful ways to support autistic people.

Found this blog helpful? You can support my writing and say thanks by buying me a coffee 🙂