Interacting with Others

A high school teacher of typical students asked about a new student who is diagnosed with autism. “I was under the impression that people with autism preferred not to interact with other people,” he said. “But my new student is almost too friendly.” The teacher went on to say the student tended to stand too close to people, to ask personal questions, and, unless told specifically to be quiet, talked almost constantly.

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While it is true that some individuals diagnosed with autism seem disconnected from society in general or tend to avoid contact with people, the range of social interaction in autism is very broad. Some people with autism
may not interact or talk, and others seem to prefer to be alone but tolerate the presence of other people. Some individuals with autism are easily over-stimulated and become very excited in the presence of other people, kicking their legs, flapping their hands, or rocking vigorously. Some people might laugh or talk uncontrollably, or they may bite their own hand in their excitement. Their response to other people is certainly a contrast to the stereotypical person with autism who shuns social contact.

I have some friends with autism who are very aggressive – they pull hair, bite, or hit anyone who comes within reaching distance. Some display explosive behavior – screaming loudly, throwing or tearing items, or running around the room when an unfamiliar person comes into the room. Some aggressive behavior may, of course, just be a result of excitement or the lack of ability to communicate to people in more appropriate ways.

In the case of the high school student described at the beginning of our podcast, he appears to have another trait commonly found in autism. He has a rather obsessive interest in people, resulting in what is perceived as overly-friendly behavior. It would probably be helpful for someone to coach him, helping the teen learn how far to stand away from a person, which personal questions are “off-limits,” and how to be a friendly without being overbearing. Many of my talkative friends with autism also need to learn the fine art of conversation, i.e. appropriate conversation topics, how to give-and-take rather than hogging the conversation, how to avoid interrupting, and how to end a conversation before the other person becomes irritated.

So, the high school teacher brought up a point that is true of all aspects of autism – we simply cannot make assumptions about what to expect with a diagnosis of autism. There are vast differences in each person’s strengths and areas of need.

NOTE TO READERS AND LISTENERS: I am Cathy Knoll, a board certified music therapist and long-time friend of many folks with autism. At 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 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.

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