April is Autism Awareness Month, and with that in mind we are asking the question — “What are some good guidelines (etiquette) when interacting with those with autism and their families? (A big shout-out to all of you who are living with autism who provided insight and expertise, you know who you are.)
Notice nonverbal cues and act accordingly. If you are meeting someone for the first time and they are avoiding eye contact, possibly shrink back when approached or seem to socialize in a unique manner, consider that they may be on the autism spectrum.
If you suspect they are on the spectrum, avoid touching, hugging and even extending your hand in a handshake. Let them take the lead. If you notice they like to talk, then engage in that manner, but avoid physical touch and be OK with physical boundaries. Beyond that, do not be critical of the boundaries they set.
Those with autism may view observations as facts and speak it as such. For example, if they notice you have coffee breath, they will just speak it as fact, not meaning it as an insult. So, for us as a community, avoid being easily offended with these comments and take it with a grain of salt (and a mint).
Precision is very important. If you set up a lunch date at noon and are a few minutes late, do not be surprised if arrive at 12:03 p.m. and find them eating lunch.
Generalities can be confusing and even frustrating to those living with autism. Speak as precisely as possible. Avoid phrases like, “hop in the car” or “what’s up.” Slang or cliches are confusing.
Be cognitive of the fact that some children and adults are nonverbal.
Include children/families with autism in playdates, birthday parties and family events, often and regularly. If you are uncertain it is a good environment, then ask the parent first. More times than not, invitations are a welcome breath of fresh air.
If you have a family member or close friend that has had a child recently diagnosed, educate yourself about this condition. Bring them dinner over occasionally, take them to lunch or meet for coffee regularly to give them a break and encourage them.
Avoid phrases like “thank goodness your other child(ren) do not have autism,” “they do not look disabled” and “I heard there is a cure if you do …” This tends to cause parents or families to have to validate their experience, and that can be uncomfortable and disheartening. Of course share news that is credible and insightful., but since a “cure” is very elusive, avoid phrasing comments in this manner.
Improvement is possible for some with treatments, therapies, medications, etc. Although this is way out of our wheelhouse, know that you may see improvements or not, depending on the form of autism.
If you see a mom/dad struggling in public with their child, although you can never be certain it is due to autism, offer help or simple words of encouragement. Say, “Is there anything I can do?,” “Could I get your son/daughter a bottle of water?” or “You’re a doing great, mama/dad.”
Knowing some of these guidelines help us to be more understanding, welcoming and supportive. And although our lists are never exhaustive, they are meant to be a springboard to being a better community that supports and builds up each other, especially those living with autism.