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02 April 2024

How to support an autistic person

Of Shout texters, 18% identify as autistic and we’re proud to support so many in the community. Often, the mental health struggles autistic people experience can stem from a lack of understanding and from living in a society that isn’t designed to cater for their needs.

This blog explains how you can support a friend, loved one or colleague with autism.

Educate yourself

This is the first step to take when supporting someone with autism. Learn about the unique characteristics that people with autism exhibit, and have an awareness of their strengths, needs, interests and challenges. These stories on the National Autistic Society blog are a good place to start. Lots of people share their experiences and insights into being autistic on social media such as @char_bailey_ and @chloeshayden on Instagram and @stories_about_autism and @wonder_autism on TikTok. The autistic person you’re supporting might also have some resources they think you should check out, so do try asking them.

Communicate clearly

Autistic people can find communication with neurotypical people challenging. Issues can range from a difficulty in understanding the body language or social cues of others, through to an inability to speak. People with autism may also interpret language differently and more literally.

Do: use clear, concise sentences and consider visual supports. Check with the person you’re speaking to that they understand what you have said and see if they need any further explanation.

Remember that when someone is communicating with you, things that may tend to be said in one way by a neurotypical person might be said in a different, more straightforward or direct way by someone who is autistic.

Don’t: speak too quickly and try to avoid using sarcasm, irony, metaphors or rhetorical questions in your language. If you do, simply pause to recap and explain what you mean in different words.

Be a good listener

Taking the time to listen makes all people feel valued and can particularly help to show someone with autism that you care and support them. If you find anything you’ve spoken about with someone unclear, ask questions to clarify. It might help to be specific, asking something like: “When you said [insert what they said] did you mean [insert your interpretation]? I just want to make sure I understand properly”.

Be understanding and positive

Autistic people can struggle with social interactions. They’re not always sure of how to express themselves and can find social situations overwhelming. Be patient and remember to compliment them (like you would with anyone else) to help boost their confidence and help them feel more comfortable interacting with others.

Help them create a routine

A structured routine helps to give autistic people a sense of stability and security. It creates clear expectations which can minimise anxiety and stress and over time, can lead to increased self-confidence and independence. Taking into consideration a person’s individual needs, strengths and interests, you could explore opportunities to help them create a structured routine for daily activities.

Disruption to an autistic person’s routine can be stressful. Events like going to a new school, starting a new job, meeting a new family member or colleague, or something like an unexpected fire alarm going off can be confusing or upsetting for them. Where you can, try and let the autistic person know about the coming change and help them come up with a plan to cope.

Pay attention to their sensory needs

Many autistic people are over- or under-sensitive to specific sounds, tastes, smells or sights, which can cause them mental distress and physical discomfort. Knowing and understanding someone’s sensory needs and then making efforts to avoid things that could add to discomfort can help autistic people feel at ease.

Take care of yourself

It’s ok if you sometimes find supporting an autistic person physically or mentally demanding, or isolating. Remember to check in with how you’re feeling and make sure you get the support you need. If you’re struggling, try sharing your thoughts and feelings with friends and family, or a GP. You can also text ‘Shout’ to 85258 to speak to a trained volunteer who will listen and support you.