How to act with autistic people: help and tips for family members

Eine Frau spielt mit ihrer Tochter am Fenster und schauen durch eine Lupe die Sternen-Girlande an.

People with autism have a different perception of the world than neurotypical people and react differently to their environment. Their atypical behaviour is often met with a lack of understanding. We provide helpful tips for family members and friends and show how they can support autistic people in their everyday lives.

Helpful tips on how to act with autistic people

What is often dismissed as a minor incident or goes unnoticed by neurotypical people can lead to total sensory overload for an autistic person and trigger strong reactions. Their behaviour is often classified as “different” by those around them and perceived as atypical. Misunderstandings are inevitable. By responding and acting in an appropriate way, you can help create a safe and understanding environment for autistic children and adults.

Emotional outbursts due to sensory overload

Due to their different perception of the world, it’s possible for an autistic person to overreact or underreact to visual, auditory or tactile stimuli. Depending on the situation, this can lead to emotional outbursts and (sometimes violent) outbursts of anger, also termed meltdowns. How can you calm autistic people down and respond supportively in such situations?

Tip: remain patient and understanding

Keep calm and act in a composed but not overbearing manner. Keep your distance, don’t shout at the person and don’t hold on to them. If the person is unable to answer, give them time. Avoid unnecessary body contact. Afterwards, it’s helpful to find out what triggered the emotional outburst, make a note of it and try to avoid it in future where possible.

Difficulties in communication

Autistic people often have difficulties with communication and social interaction.

  • People with an autism spectrum disorder may have trouble understanding or recognising the views of other people. Many also don’t find it easy to interpret facial expressions and gestures or maintain eye contact.
  • Autistic people often take what is said literally and are unable to make sense of ironic comments and metaphors.
  • It’s sometimes difficult for people with an autism spectrum disorder to express their own feelings and needs in concrete terms.
  • It can also be exhausting for them to follow normal speeds of speech, which makes communication considerably more demanding.
  • Autistic people have a different way of acting with regard to eye contact, facial expressions, posture and gestures.

Tip: express yourself clearly and precisely

  • Say what you want to say in literal terms.
  • Don’t create unnecessarily complicated questions. Make them brief and don’t use jokes or irony.
  • Try to explain yourself in a straightforward manner and avoid unnecessary paraphrasing, metaphors and puns.
  • Don’t try to emphasise something with facial expressions, gestures or your posture.

Repeated stereotypical behaviour

A common symptom of autism is “stimming” (self-stimulating behaviour). These are repetitive actions – such as rocking, flapping their hands or counting – that autistic people perform to calm themselves down.

Sticking to routines and rituals

It can be very beneficial for autistic people to stick to certain routines and rituals, as they often have difficulty in both anticipating and accepting changes in their environment.

Tip: avoid spontaneity, surprises and last-minute changes of plan

Describe exactly what you’re planning and intending to do. Give at least one day's notice for visits. Explain exactly what has been planned and stick to it.

Focused on specific areas of interest

Once their interest has been aroused, autistic people can fall into what is known as hyperfocus, i.e. they’re highly focused and enthusiastic about something or an activity and don’t like to be disturbed.

Tip: try to avoid disturbing and interrupting their hyperfocus as much as possible. Also create an environment in which these special interests can be pursued.

Educational approach to autistic children

The first years of early childhood development are very formative. Special attention should therefore be paid to how you act with autistic children, especially at this early childhood stage. Autistic children in the early stages of their development can find it particularly difficult to understand and make sense of the events and sensory stimuli in their environment and to communicate their needs.

Learn social skills

Children with the condition can learn how to deal with social situations and how to behave in a group by interacting with caregivers and other children.

Educational facilities for children on the autistic spectrum

When selecting early childhood facilities and schools, you should find out in advance whether the staff know how to act with autistic children and adolescents. For example, alternative communication methods can offer considerable added value.

What are alternative communication methods? Alternative communication methods such as picture cards, diagrams etc. enable children with the condition to express their needs non-verbally.

Tips for selecting schools and nurseries

The following suggestions can help you choose a suitable facility:

  1. Talk to autism experts, child psychologists and therapists in advance to gain valuable insights and help you find the right facility for your child.
  2. Check in advance whether the facility has a structured and visually appealing environment and whether there are quiet places for children to withdraw.
  3. Find out how aware other parents and children are of the condition. Awareness can be raised with playful explanations and children's books.

Family members must also practise self-care

Family members and friends of people with autism spectrum disorders often face many questions and challenges. The intensive period of diagnosis, talking to authorities, schools, employers and medical professionals can be very challenging and demanding on your resources. In addition, dealing with autistic children (and autistic adults) usually requires more detailed management to ensure that family life runs smoothly and harmoniously.

Tips for family members of people on the autistic spectrum

It’s extremely important to know where you can get help and support so that you’re not alone.

  • Seek contact with other families in the same situation.
  • Practise self-care by taking good care of your own mental and physical well-being.
  • Find out about autism self-help groups for family members in your local area.
  • Get in touch with advisory services, associations and specialist organisations.
  • Don’t hesitate to seek professional support if you’re facing challenges yourself, e.g. processing and accepting the diagnosis.

What is autism?

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is described as an invisible, lifelong, profound developmental disorder. The fundamental cause of autism and its symptoms is an impaired ability to process environmental stimuli. Autism has nothing to do with reduced intelligence. Rather, it describes a different perception of the world. This perception is as individual and unique as a fingerprint, as are the symptoms and effects. They can allow or hinder a person to live an independent life.

Different forms of autism

The medical profession often speaks of early childhood autism (Kanner syndrome), Asperger syndrome (only noticeable after the age of three) or the often unrecognised hidden autism. The range of very differing symptoms and forms makes a diagnosis difficult and time-consuming.

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