I remember one morning I was out with my mom and brother. Being young at this point, I was complaining about social interactions. My brother mentioned that everyone has it hard. Nothing is easy, even for people who aren’t autistic. For the life of me, it clicked like that weird eureka moment that most people never get to see.
I’ll take this into a “teaching moment” as Dr. Grandin has said before about parents who may want to teach their children on the spectrum. Now, being on the spectrum has its pros as well as cons. I won’t list them all, but I will mention the ones that affect me the most and they may hit close to home for you if you think you may be on the spectrum. I have also included a few tips for how to better handle a situation with them, so all parties can split the pot evenly.
- Sensory input- That is a big one for people on the autism spectrum. Whether it is lights, sounds, touch, taste, and everything else that deals with the senses. For example, at least for me, the sound of something humming, a pen clicking, and a computer being typed on all come in at the same volume or frequency for me and all at once. It can be very overwhelming for people to try and digest everything that is coming at them at one time. I tend to always keep my headphones on or around me just in case something starts to set me off.
- Social Cues- The overall human language is very diverse in terms of our inflections, our body language and our eye contact and sometimes lack thereof. The things that I am still getting a grasp on are body language and eye contact. Even though my mom taught me to hold eye contact as a child, it is still unsettling to me after a while. She used to tell me to look her in the eyes if I wanted something specific from her, like a snack or a toy. It is still on going and I still struggle with it.
- Two-way communication- As most people know, having a proper conversation is like tossing a ball. The ball needs to be given back to the other person to have a conversation and back and forth it goes. Many people on the spectrum have a difficult time regulating this behavior and tend to monopolize the conversation for a long while. Or they may not know how to hold a conversation with another person and drop the communication ball partly through the conversation itself. Something that still helps me to this day is having either a flow chart where if this is said, then I have something to fall back on or the script where it may be practiced many times to the point of it sounding better than if the words came out naturally. I know for myself the words tend to get jumbled up and come out the opposite way than I was intending.
- Hyper fixations- As many may have come to realize, when you befriend a person on the spectrum, we tend to have things that we spend more time focusing on than anything else. It may not be the same for everyone as each of us is unique in our own ways. My fixations vary from writers to tv shows and everything in between. Fixations may change as we grow up and some may stay the same.
- Daily Routines- Where most people are good with surprises, many autistic people have a difficult time handling that. They sometimes prefer routines and that never changes for them. As people get older, things will invariably have to change whether they approve of it or not. Going to a new school, moving to go to college, finding an apartment, or even a shopping trip. The one thing that may help them feel more at ease with this change is allowing them a good bit of time to understand this. Depending on how old they are, it would be best to incorporate this earlier on. I’m used to changes in my routine and am a bit of a creature of habit as well.
- Repetitive Behaviors- Being on the spectrum is rather unique and full of surprises to say the least. One thing to tag to daily routines is the fact that people on the autism spectrum do have repetitive behaviors. Hand flapping, spinning, or rocking the body, and repeating certain phrases. These play into self-stimulation or “stimming” as most people call it.
- Comorbidity- Yes, autism is very much a comorbid or “medical conditions that are simultaneously present in a person.” What this means is that someone with autism spectrum disorder may also have but what comes with it is not limited to anxiety, depression, and many other diagnoses.
- Literal brain- Often, people on the spectrum will take things literally rather than figuratively. As an example, the phrase “The cat got your tongue,” would mean that you are being unusually quiet. The literal brain would think “Wait, the cat has my tongue? But it’s still in my mouth!” Now, the origin of this phrase is something that would unsettle people, but the literal mind is closer to the origin of it rather than what it means today.
- Be direct- What is meant by this is that most people on the spectrum may prefer someone to tell them honestly of something that happened. Don’t beat around the bush or artificial with them. They may not understand what is being said to them. Just bite the bullet and tell them what is really going on. Chances are, they may hear what is being told to them more clearly and be more receptive to what is being said to them.
- Touch sensitivity- As I have mentioned before about sensory input and how it affects people on the spectrum, many people with autism tend to avoid light or subtle touches from other people. Even the thought of such a thing makes my skin crawl. Touch isn’t just the way we interact with one another; it can also be the way we feel the clothes on our backs. Personally, I prefer softer fabrics and have more breathable material. This sensory input can vary from person to person and isn’t always limited to people on the spectrum.
- Good with animals- On the fact that people on the spectrum don’t understand human body language. What would make anyone think that they are good with animals? Dr. Grandin is an animal behaviorist and renowned for her understanding of animals and their psychology. People who are on the spectrum get lumped together a lot. The non-autistic people will tend to ask, “Are they good with animals?” They may ask as if it is something intrinsic to being on the spectrum. It took me years before I was able to come anywhere near understanding human body language. I grew up with dogs, cats, a rabbit, a horse, hermit crabs and hamsters. That’s a lot of varying body language to understand. If you want to get them a pet, make sure you and the person with autism are doing full research on the pet’s behaviors and what could easily make it happy to be afraid and everything else in between. If the autistic person wants to know, they will find a way. Yes, it is good to know what the pet may like to eat and what kind of bed they may prefer and anything else they may need to know. The biggest factor would be if you have someone with the pet they may want, getting them to spend some time alone with it to put the knowledge into practice. Babysitting pets is a good thing, too, because it teaches us that bonding isn’t a bad thing. I used to pet sit for a neighbor when they would go out of town. Their cat liked spending time with me, and I appreciated the companionship it would allow. I would go to give it fresh water, clean food and freshen the litter box. It would always be something that I would look forward to during the summers.
- Emotional Sensitivity- This isn’t them taking it over the top in some cases. It may be something that people who aren’t autistic may see as something as a casual bump in the road. For example, running out of milk in the house may seem like a minor inconvenience to someone who isn’t on the spectrum while that same thing may cause immense distress to someone who is. They don’t exactly know how to regulate their emotions. A good thing to teach them is the “I feel” phrase. It might seem mundane, but this method may teach them how their emotions work, and what exactly may be the underlying cause of their distress. This also works into tantrums versus meltdowns. Tantrums are a want for attention because they think it will allow them to get what they want when they want it. Whereas a meltdown is where someone may have a sensory overload. What that means is that they are experiencing the same inputs as you may be but on a different level of such and are unable to process it all at once. The only advice here is to not allow your frustration to rise as that may escalate the problem. If that is the case, and you aren’t in public, walk away from them and just let them be on their own for a minute while you regroup. If you are in public and this happens, don’t baby them as they will most likely do this in the form of a tantrum next time. Ask them if they can tell you what is wrong or what may be bothering them. Do not belittle their emotions or put down those as it will make it more difficult for them to process their emotions later in life.
- Monotone Voice- This is a common one in autistic people. They tend to speak with little to no inflection in their voices. If they do, it tends to go too high or too low. Not to say that all autistic people speak like this, just that it is a common trait. I remember my mom telling me that some of my cousins used to tease me for the robotic tone I used to have. I still have some work to go but am proud of the accomplishments I have made.
- Organizational Preferences- When I was a kid, I used to set up my toys a certain way on my bed so it would look like they would have a picnic or my M&Ms and Skittles would be organized by color so I could eat certain colors last. Depending on how I set them up would be how I would eat them. It was the same way I would eat my food at any mealtime. Over the years, I have learned that I wasn’t the only person who did this. It is a common trait among autistic people to have things a certain way that may seem chaotic to the outside eye but to them, it is organized in the way they like.
- Tone of voice- This relates back to monotone. It can be seen as rude or blunt. There are so many ways this could be understood by someone who isn’t autistic. This is different from monotone but relates to how inflections may differ from neurotypicals. This is variable from person to person and the tone can be interpreted differently from what is intended. For example, I can come across as being rude or uncaring when I speak. I forget that intonation and inflection can improve my communication skills.