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Communicating With Adults Who Have Autism Spectrum Disorder

Updated on August 17, 2017
Carola Finch profile image

Carola writes extensively on health, social issues, mental illness, disabilities, and other topics. She is a breast cancer survivor.

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As an advocate and writer who focuses on people with disabilities, I know that talking to a person with autism spectrum disorder may seem daunting for people who have not yet had the opportunity to meet someone who is on the spectrum. Here are some tips and things to know that can help make such a conversation more comfortable for everyone.

An explanation of ASD

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, autism spectrum disorder is a developmental disability that can cause severe communication, social, and behavioral changes. Autism is a complex neurological disorder that effects each person differently. There are some common traits such as repetitive or restricted activities, abnormal sensory responses, and poor social skills. Autistic people like routines and may become anxious or angry when their routines are disrupted.

Social interaction and conversation are among the numerous challenges faced by autistic people. People with autism spectrum disorder have several deficits when it comes to social communication and relating to others.

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Common social deficits

  • a lack of awareness of the presence of other people
  • does not maintain eye contact
  • difficulty starting and sustaining conversations
  • a tendency to repeat phrases over and over
  • problems in reading body language correctly and picking up communication cues
  • overly focussed on specific areas that interest them
  • a lack of motivation to relate to peers or to become involved in social activities
  • Difficulty in understanding other people's viewpoints
  • Do not like to be touched

When people with autism are growing up, these deficits can interfere with their ability to interact and relate to others. They may experience this issues:

  • Ridicule, bullying and rejection by their peers
  • May have a bad reputation as strange or shy
  • A lack of social engagement with others and few friendships
  • A lack of close, quality relationships
  • Conflict with their peers

Example of a conversation with an autistic person

Communication Tips

Here are some things to keep in mind when having a conversation with an person who has autism spectrum disorder.

Use their names in the conversation: According to the the National Autistic Society, this demonstrates that you are talking to them.

Make sure you have their attention: Get their attention before giving an instruction or asking a question. Signs that they are focused are different in each autistic person.

Make your conversation clear: Use literal, concrete, and clear language in concise terms. Avoid the use of slang, sarcasm, innuendos, and idioms. These types of communication may be confusing to a person with autism.

Stick to a specific topic: Focus on one area in which you have general knowledge, if possible, and follow it. The conversation will go more smoothly if the comments you make are a follow-up on what was previously said. Try to avoid stating the obvious, which may be interpreted as condescension. An autistic person sometimes has difficulty following the flow of the conversation and comprehending what has been said.

Avoid triggering a sensory overload: Too much information at once can cause an overload. People with autism find it difficult to filter out information that is less important. Say less and repeat key words and phrases. According to Autism Speaks, the senses of people with autism are out of sync in a way that may be painful for them. A sense of smell can be heightened. Hearing may be hyperacute, so a lot of background noise can interfere with their ability to concentrate.

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Avoid repeating or rephrasing your words: The person with autism will understand what is said, so avoid repeating or rephrasing your previous comments unless absolutely necessary. Autistic people are often good at picking up details such as people’s names, but they must make the effort to do so. They have difficulty discerning and picking up the correct information.

Talk about the autistic person's interests: People with autism tend to focus on a limited number of specific hobbies or topics that interest them, so try to divert the conversation to these areas. You may end up having one-sided conversations otherwise.

You may need to interrupt a conversation with an autistic person if there is important information to be shared from time to time, however, such as telling the person about a family emergency.

Expect interruptions in the conversation: The autistic person may reply to a question before you have finished stating it. If they have anticipated your question correctly, you do not need to finish what you are saying.

Include the person with autism in social interactions: Experts Scott Chausse and Teka Harris say that sometimes, peoples in social situations tend to ignore the autistic person in the room and talk about them as if they were not there.

Avoid falling into this trap by modeling appropriate behavior such as trying to include people with autism in the conversations.

Give time for the autistic person to process what has been said and answer questions: If you are asking a question, wait for the autistic person to respond. The autistic person may need some time to process the information and form their answer. Don’t assume that the autistic person did not hear or understand you.

Do not use terms of endearment: Avoid words that are too familiar, such as “sweetie” or “honey” or personal descriptions such as “adorable” or “cute.” These terms may be well-meant terms of endearment, but can be seen as disrespectful, condescending or demeaning.

During an emotional conversation, it may be acceptable to say things like, “everything will be OK,” or “well done.” Doing so can encourage the autistic person to become more open in a conversation.

Address them as adults: An autistic person should be addressed as an adult, and not a child. People with ASD struggle with social interaction, but this characteristic is not related to their cognitive abilities. They understand what is said in a conversation, but may have difficulty in expressing a verbal response.

Learn more about the social deficits of people with autism: There are a number of organizations such as Autism Speaks and websites such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that provide helpful information.

Concluding thoughts

Conversations with autistic people can be challenging. They may not maintain eye contact or answer appropriately when asked a question. They may interrupt or keep shifting the topic to something that intensely interest them. People who want to talk to a person with autism should be aware of these characteristics and accept the person unconditionally.

© 2013 Carola Finch

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