Around 1 in 68 children has been diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder in the United States.
Many of us may have a relative, friend, or acquaintance on the spectrum, and those of us who do not have likely interacted with someone who has received the diagnosis even if we didn’t know it. Autism spectrum disorder (which many people just call “autism”) includes a range of symptoms that can affect people’s ability to communicate or navigate social situations. Every individual is different—some people with an autism spectrum disorder have no problem with verbally expressing their thoughts and feelings, while others may rely on sign language or communication devices.
I’m a child psychologist at Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center, and I work with many young patients on the autism spectrum. In honor of Autism Awareness Month, I want to talk about ways that you can be a better friend to someone on the autism spectrum. While individuals diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder can find social interaction challenging, they often want to make friends. To be a better friend to those diagnosed with autism, here are a few things you should know.
1. Processing language takes time.
Sometimes, it can be difficult to understand what someone on the autism spectrum is trying to tell you—and other times, it’s hard for them to understand you! Never be afraid to ask for clarification. Try, “I think I heard you say this. Is that right?” Don’t pretend like you understood them if you didn’t. It’s also a good idea to check in to make sure they understand you. That said, avoid the assumption that you need to talk down to them. Many people with autism are very smart—they just don’t necessarily communicate like everyone around them. This means that there’s no reason to use baby talk. Sarcasm may be difficult for a person with autism to detect. It may be best to be direct and straight forward. Keep in mind that some individuals with autism may understand what you say, but have a harder time reading your body language and facial expressions.
2. Understanding someone else’s point of view takes work.
People on the autism spectrum can’t always put themselves in other people’s shoes. In other words, they may not fully grasp that other people have their own interests, emotions and points of view different from their own. This means that your friend may need your help to understand your experience better. Don’t be afraid to share your feelings with them and explain why you feel the way you do. If they understand your position better, your friend might be able to navigate the social interaction more easily. You can also give your friend positive feedback! When they tell a funny story, or open up to you in a way that makes you feel good, tell them.
3. Structure and routine are important.
People with autism often like structure and routine. When you invite them to hang out, letting them know ahead of time where you are going and what activities you will do may help them relax and enjoy the experience more. If possible, try to give your friend some advance notice, rather than asking them at the last minute. This may make it easier for them to go.
4. One or two passions may be consuming.
People with autism often become intensely focused on one interest, and can talk about it for a long time. Take the opportunity to expand your knowledge set and see just how passionate your friend can be. Be a good listener, ask questions and learn from your friend. When you’re ready to share your interests, let them know. You can do this in a way that’s not rude or hurtful. Try steering the subject to a related interest, like: “Wow, you’re amazing at Call of Duty. Do you know about this other game I’ve started playing?” Or: “You know so much about airplanes, and I barely know anything! This is interesting, but it’s just a little too much to absorb at once.” Or, if you’re supposed to be completing a task: “We were talking about the school project—I think it’s important for us to get back to that if we want to finish in time.”
5. Everyone has a rich inner life.
People on the spectrum live a full life, just like everybody else. Be curious about it. Ask them about school, camp, their weekend, etc. Give them an opportunity to express themselves. Point out similarities you have, like that you both play piano, or go to camp over the summer. This not only gives you a chance to get to know them better, but builds your friendship and understanding of what you have in common.
We all have unique strengths and experiences to share. Hanging out with someone on the autism spectrum isn’t a community service project—it’s a way to find common ground with someone who sees and experiences the world in a different way from you.
If you want to learn more about autism spectrum disorder, check out the American Autism Association, this video guide to autism from a teen, and this cool comic that talks more about what the “spectrum” in autism spectrum disorder means.
Dr. Ariella Silver is an Assistant Professor in the departments of pediatrics and psychiatry at Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center, and earned her doctorate in Clinical and School Psychology from Ferkauf Graduate School of Psychology in New York. She completed post-doctoral training at Mount Sinai’s Center of Excellence in ADHD and Related Disorders and the Seaver Autism Center for Research and Treatment. Dr. Silver’s areas of interest include, learning disorders, developmental disabilities, intellectual disabilities, autism spectrum disorder, anxiety, ADHD, and oppositional defiant disorder.
The Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center is located in New York City. It provides comprehensive, confidential, judgment free health care at no charge to over 10,000 young people every year. This column is not intended to provide medical advice, professional diagnosis, opinion, treatment or services to you or to any other individual, only general information for education purposes only.