World Autism Awareness Day is annually celebrated on April 2; on this day, communities worldwide strive toward spreading awareness about autism and advocating for the rights of people with autism. The aim is simple: to achieve a global understanding of this disorder and learn how to support people living with it. This year, we celebrate that day during the holy month of Ramadan, when families and friends tend to gather in social situations. As people with autism can often struggle with social situations, among other things, we wrote this article to provide you with suggestions to support a loved one living with autism, particularly in social settings.
Before delving into the specific ways you can be supportive of someone with autism, it is important to understand what autism is actually about, how it can manifest, and impact day-to-day life.
What is Autism?
Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder that affects a person's social interactions, learning, communication, and behavior. The word "spectrum" emphasizes that people with autism can exhibit different symptoms and face unique challenges; autism can appear in varying forms and levels of severity.
As discussed earlier, ASD presentations vary from one person to another; however, the following are some telltale signs to be on the lookout for:
- Avoiding eye contact and wanting to be alone most of the time
- Having trouble relating to people or not having an interest in them
- Struggling to understand others' feelings or express one's feelings and needs
- Repeating words or phrases said to them (echolalia)
- Engaging in repetitive or ritualistic behaviors that do not appear to serve a purpose (stereotypy)
- Having unusual reactions to sensory stimuli (touch, taste, sound, or smell)
- Insisting on following a routine and struggling to adapt to any changes
Parenting a child with ASD
Autism is a lifetime disorder; it can be challenging, especially when you, as a caregiver, are not equipped with the correct information. If you are a parent or guardian of a child with autism, it is essential to educate yourself on the appropriate ways to take care of and support a child with autism.
Apart from the medical care and psychological therapies you may use to help your child manage their condition, there are simple strategies you can adopt to support your child more effectively.
- Understand your child's individual needs: As each child faces different challenges, it is essential for you to cater to their individuality. For example, if your child has recurrent meltdowns, you could identify the potential triggers of these strong reactions by evaluating your child's surrounding environment and considering any recent changes that may have occurred. If you understand what affects your child, you will be better at troubleshooting problems and even preventing meltdowns, and providing them with the tools and conditions that will help them thrive.
- Be mindful of their environment: many children with autism are hypersensitive (over-sensitive) or hyposensitive (under-sensitive) to sensory stimuli. It can be very helpful to carve out a quiet, peaceful place for them to retreat to if the noise level at home or at a gathering, becomes too overwhelming for them. You can take them to that safe space when needed, and you can also help by engaging them in a distraction technique or using objects they find reassuring, like squeezable, chewable, or weighted toys.
- Stay consistent: People on the autism spectrum like routines, as many of them find comfort in having a predictable day. This helps them feel safe, grounded and in control of their own lives. Consequently, they often struggle to cope with sudden change; unexpected events can throw them off and make them feel anxious, like they are not in control anymore and have to get accustomed to things all over again, and they can take a longer time to absorb and process novelty. Therefore, try to make sure your kids have a structured daily routine to follow, and try to let them know about any changes to the schedule beforehand. You can even cCapitalize on this temperament and help them thrive in social settings or at home by giving them tasks to complete in a specific order, like helping with household chores, as this will make them feel more at ease and in control.
- Teach them adaptive behavior: a child with autism may sometimes misbehave to get your attention; ignoring this behavior is often the best way to prevent it. Help them understand that they don't have to express their frustration by being aggressive or throwing tantrums. The consequences of breaking the rules should be consistent to avoid confusion. In contrast, be sure to consistently praise and reward good behavior, while being very specific about what they're being praised for. Coordinate with their educators and therapists and align on a set of techniques and methods of interactions, as creating consistency in their environment is the best way to reinforce learning.
- Be mindful of your language: children with autism tend to interpret language literally, so using metaphors or sarcasm can cause confusion and misinterpretation. Try to be as simple and direct as possible when speaking to them, especially if you're asking them a question or giving instructions, and keep rules and expectations consistent and specific. Also, keep choices clear and limited to lessen their chances of feeling overwhelmed.
- Help them communicate: depending on where they fall on the spectrum, children with autism may talk reasonably well or be non-verbal. If your child struggles to use and understand language, use signs, pictures, and alternative communication methods to help them express themselves. Most children with autism are visually oriented, so pictures can help them communicate choices, preferences, and answers. Make sure their educators and caregivers are all aware of the system you are using so your child can smoothly interact with the people they see daily.
- Help them socialize: children with autism are not always able to know how to act in social situations based on observation; a helpful way of learning social techniques is to use stories to help them remember what to say or do in different situations. Remember not to pressure them, as learning social skills requires time, and don't force them into social situations if they express discomfort.
How to help an adult with ASD thrive socially
When it comes to supporting adults with ASD, much of the same applies. Educating yourself and others about the disorder will help you support them appropriately and dispel the myths and stigma surrounding their condition. Understanding the specific needs and challenges of the person will similarly allow you to empower them and help them in being more comfortable in a social setting.
- Learn how to communicate with them and set realistic expectations. Be flexible and creative, and try to be as clear and direct as possible when interacting with them, to ensure that you are both on the same wavelength.
- Many people with ASD can struggle with adapting to change and unpredictable environments. If the social situation they are in is too challenging, you can help them gradually adapt by standing in a quieter space and distracting their attention from the noise around. You can speak to them using a slow, calming, and rational tone and give them as much time as they need to adapt.
- Many adults with ASD have skills in particular areas, such as music, art, or science. Many of them are also exceptionally skilled at remembering things in detail for extended periods of time! Finding out what these strengths are, celebrating them, and encouraging them to invest in them go a long way towards building their self-confidence and will help you forge a stronger bond with them.
- Let them know it is possible for them to be friends with people outside of their close circle, as they can often struggle in that area and isolate socially. Encourage them to ask questions and put themselves out there, and always be respectful, compassionate, and patient. Showing unconditional love and acceptance remains the best way to create an environment where they will thrive, without being burdened by expectations to change or keep up with others' pace.
- Help them find healthy outlets for their angst; learning how to cope with and express our emotions is no easy fit, and it is a skill most of us struggle with from time to time, well into our adult lives. This can be even more challenging for someone on the spectrum! Supporting them can mean looking together for adaptive ways to express their feelings and exploring activities that allow them to release their pent-up frustration and discomfort.
When caring for a child or supporting a friend with autism, the take-home message is that patience, compassion, creativity, and flexibility are key. Remember to dedicate time to care for yourself as well, so you are emotionally, mentally, and physically equipped to support your loved one. Don't hesitate to reach out to family, friends, support groups, and mental health and education professionals, who can provide you with resources to educate yourself and cope better with daily challenges.