Communication, Interaction & Support


Communicating With and About People With Disabilities
About 1 in 4, or 61 million, U.S. adults reports having some form of a disability.1 Disability is part of the human experience, but sometimes people use words or phrases that are insensitive and do not promote understanding, dignity, and respect for people with disabilities. Most often than not, this is not intentional, but is disrespectful just the same.

People-First Language
People-first language is used to communicate appropriately and respectfully with and about an individual with a disability. People-first language emphasizes the person first, not the disability. For example, when referring to a person with a disability, refer to the person first, by using phrases such as, “a person who …”, “a person with …” or, “person who has …”

General Tips

people first language table

#CelebrateDifference - Be a Friend!
noah ZsyoDh zek4 unsplashEvery person in the world is unique in his or her own special way.  We believe what makes you different, makes you special!  When you become a friend to a person with autism, you can both learn a lot from each other.  Understanding autism and how to interact with people with autism comes from being exposed to them.  Learning how to treat and talk to a person with autism can help you be a better friend. 

Here are a few tips for being a friend to someone with autism:

  • Always be kind and compassionate.
  • Accept your friend’s differences and realize your friend may have information or skills that you can learn from as well.
  • Treat them like anyone else and talk to them like you would talk to another one of your friends. 
  • Try not to use sarcasm or slang as your friend may not understand (“get over it,” “let’s hang out”)
  • Your friend’s behavior is often their way of communicating.  They might scream, hit themselves, repeat phrases or throw things because they have a hard time telling people what they want or need.  Try to figure out what your friend is saying with their behavior.
  • Give your friend extra time to answer your question or complete an activity.
  • Protect your friend when others try to bully or make them do something that is not appropriate.
  • Understand your friend may be bothered by things that you are not (loud noises or bright lighting).
  • Help others learn about and accept autism.
  • Join your friend in activities that interest them.
  • Invite your friend to join you in group activities, such as going to the movies, hanging out with other friends, or attending sporting or school events.
  • Ask them to do things with you, but don’t just explain it to them.  Show them what to do so they can imitate you.
  • Say something to your friend when they do good things.  You can cheer, give high-fives or just tell them “great work”.  They like to be complimented too!

GT 15How to Support People with Autism
Remember that each individual with autism is unique. The autism spectrum is long and wide and as Dr. Stephen Shore said, “When you’ve met one person with autism you’ve met one person with autism” These tips are generalizations and may not be for everyone, but are meant to provide some general guidelines to help engage family, friends and neighbors who live with autism.

  • Assume competence, engaging individuals at an age appropriate level, with appropriate topics and information.
  • Social differences may include lack of eye contact and talking about highly specific subjects that may seem “off topic.” You can also build rapport and trust by engaging with subjects of high interest. Follow the person’s lead!
  • Ask the person and/or parent, support staff, how you can be helpful.
  • Speak simply and with a calm voice using language that is direct and easy to understand. Re-state the question differently if the person doesn’t seem to understand.
  • Sometimes pairing verbal language with written or visual support is helpful. Similarly, sometimes in stressful situations a person with autism may wish to write responses.
  • Address the person by name so they know you are speaking to them. Give time to respond. Ten seconds of processing time may seem long to you, but can be helpful for an individual with autism.
  • Do not touch without asking and explaining what you are about to do, what will happen next, and why.
  • Build a routine, which for some individuals with autism reduces anxiety and uncertainty.
  • Self-stimulatory behavior – such as rocking, hand-flapping, and pacing – may be a sign of anxiety and a person’s way of coping. Do not attempt to stop.
  • Recognize that all behavior is communication and may be the person’s only way of expressing pain, confusion, or mis-understanding. Note what happened before the person became upset and determine if the situation is preventable.
  • Up to 90% of people with autism are thought to be sensitive to light, sound, smell and touch. Consider the environment and if it is causing anxiety. Help the person identify coping mechanisms such as headphones, fidgets, removing the offending item, or other supports.
  • Praise individuals with autism with specific feedback when all goes well, not just when things go wrong. Similarly, convey directly what to do, not just what not to do, in concrete and easy to understand words.