Although many people with autism are very sociable and communicative, some are on the opposite end of the scale. When it comes to interacting with other people, some individuals with autism are withdrawn or extraordinarily shy. Others are even on the extreme end of the scale, appearing to be disconnected with the “real world.” How can we connect with our friends with autism who are seemingly oblivious to other people?
Some passive individuals with autism are lethargic and non-responsive. Others seem immersed in their own world, but they do reach out and interact with people somewhat mechanically. For example, they may use a person’s hand as a tool or machine to get a drink, a snack, or a book.
Whether a person is completely disconnected or responds impersonally, we can take some specific steps to connect with them and to build a close personal relationship. In fact, because some of our friends with autism do not naturally connect on a personal level, we need to be more purposeful and systematic in building a relationship.
1. TAKE TIME. Make a commitment to spend time with your withdrawn friend every day. Individuals with autism tend to thrive on routine, so take five or ten minutes at regular, predictable times of the day to connect. Sit on a swing or take a stroll together or read a book before bed. Don’t worry about your friend smiling or responding to you. Just dedicate some uninterrupted time to developing a relationship simply by being in the presence of your friend.
2. ASSUME. Even if your friend does not seem to hear you talking, assume they understand every word you say. Because of the inconsistencies characteristic to autism, it is very possible that a non-verbal, non-responsive person actually has excellent receptive language. So, carry on one-sided conversations without expecting them to respond. Chat about people and events in their home and community. Talk about upcoming events and reminisce about the past.
3. RESPECT. Many of us tend to talk in a childish tone of voice when talking to non-verbal people. It is more respectful to use age appropriate tone of voice, vocabulary, and topics. We also tend to talk about a non-verbal person as if they were not there. Even withdrawn, disconnected people deserve respect, so it is best not to discuss their toileting habits or their difficulty in school or other topics in a public forum.
TIP FOR THE DAY. Even when your friend with autism seems oblivious to people around him, take time to nourish your relationship and to develop a connection. Although it may feel like a lop-sided friendship, but just being present on a regular basis increases the quality of life for everyone involved.
NOTE TO READERS AND LISTENERS: I am Cathy Knoll, a board certified music therapist and long-time friend of many folks with autism. At FAQautism.com we are committed to providing free, practical, everyday tips for making life better for people with autism. Feel free to send me a confidential email at talk@FAQautism.com with your thoughts or challenging situations or innovative solution. And don’t forget to check out our website for a wealth of ideas and a glimpse into the world of autism. http://FAQautism.com