Autistic people may appear strange or intimidating to others, but they can be quite fun and charming once you get to know them. This guide will help explain how to talk to them.
As the prevalence of autism increases, the world is slowly (very slowly) adjusting to fit a changing population. Top companies are hiring people with autism for high-powered jobs, autism awareness is growing, and you can now book an autism-friendly vacation. But people with autism are still waiting for what seems like the most obvious adjustment: neurotypicals to stop being afraid to talk to them.
Talking to someone with autism doesn’t require learning a new language or earning a degree. In fact, the rules for having a conversation with a person with autism are the pretty much the same as having a respectful conversation with anyone, and friendships with people on the autism spectrum can be unique and refreshing.
Part 1 – Understanding Their Needs
1 Don’t worry about eye contact.
Most autistic people don’t make eye contact often, and may feel uncomfortable if you try to force them to do so.
Autistic people can usually think, listen, and speak better when they don’t need to make eye contact. If not making eye contact feels odd to you, try sitting or walking side by side, or chatting while doing something that involves your eyes (like drawing or crochet). They may not always look at you when listening to you. Unlike non-autistic people, autistic people don’t always look at the person or thing they are thinking about.
2 Avoid touching them unexpectedly.
Some autistic people are highly sensitive to touch, and even a friendly pat on the back can feel alarming or painful. Feel free to ask the autistic person what their likes and boundaries are. For example, some autistic people are distracted by a hand on their shoulder, while others love bear hugs.
In general, don’t touch an autistic person without their consent, and try not to startle them.
Try asking first: “Would you like a hug?” This gives them the chance to decline if they’re feeling too overwhelmed.
If you’re going to touch an autistic person, let them see your hand coming. This keeps from startling them, and gives them time to pull away or say no.
Autistic people usually can’t handle touch when experiencing sensory overload. Don’t assume that a “yes” from yesterday will guarantee a “yes” today.
Conversely, they might have been unable to process a hug yesterday, but would love a hug today.
3 Find a peaceful area to hang out.
Due to Sensory Processing Disorder, an autistic person might have trouble filtering out ambient noises and sights.
Thus, it’s a good idea to hang out in a quieter place, so they can better focus on the conversation.
Pay attention if they say they can’t handle something. If they say it, they mean it.
Sometimes autistic people have a hard time understanding when they’re overwhelmed. If you notice that they look stressed, take them somewhere less overwhelming.
4 Speak clearly and understandably.
While some autistic people have no barriers to typical conversation, others may not understand everything you say. Be respectful, and be willing to repeat yourself if they didn’t catch what you said. Here are some difficulties they may face… Trouble with figurative language. Sarcasm and humor may be confusing to autistic people.
If they act strange or confused, you may need to clarify that you weren’t serious.
Speech processing issues. Regardless of their intelligence or vocabulary, it may take them time to translate sounds into meanings in their heads. Allow for pauses in the conversation, to give them time to think and react. Avoid rattling off long lists of things—write it down if you expect them to remember all of it.
Use your normal tone of voice. Avoid talking to adults in baby talk.
5 Be aware of challenges with reading social cues.
Autistic people may not understand facial expressions, body language, hidden implications, or hints—it depends on the individual. It helps to be clear about your thoughts and feelings. If they do something that’s socially tone-deaf, assume ignorance rather than malice.
It’s unlikely that they mean any harm by it.
Since social rules can be harder for autistic people to understand, they may unintentionally say something rude. Assume the best: that they walked away because they didn’t know how to end a conversation, instead of that they walked away because they hate you.
Check with them. “I noticed that you didn’t respond when I said hi to you in the grocery store yesterday. Were you ignoring me, or did you not notice me?”
They’ll appreciate the clarity.
If they hurt your feelings, say so. This gives them the opportunity to realize that you were upset, and apologize to you.
6 Know that you may witness a meltdown or shutdown.
Meltdowns occur when an autistic person can no longer suppress their pent-up stress, and releases it in a fit of emotion that may resemble a breakdown or tantrum. Shutdowns look like the opposite: the person “shuts down,” becomes passive, and loses the ability to interact.
In both cases, it’s important to give them patience and compassion.
Help them find a quiet, private place so they can calm down. Avoid asking questions, pressuring them to speak, or trying to distract them. Give them time.
Reduce sensory input.
Never grab them without permission or shout at them. Remember, they can’t control it, and they probably feel deeply ashamed about losing control in a public place.
Meltdowns feel terrible.
7 Expect them to stim.
Stimming is a natural autistic behavior that helps them stay calm, think clearly, feel good,express their feelings, and adapt to a challenging world. When your friend stims, act like there’s nothing unusual about it: ignore it and keep talking, or respond to their emotion (e.g. laughing along with them, or asking if they’re doing okay because they look distressed). They will appreciate your acceptance.
If their stimming is interfering with your needs (e.g. their pacing is making you literally feel dizzy), gently ask for them to switch to a different stim.
Never ask them to stop stimming just because it makes you feel embarrassed or awkward.If an autistic person stims around you, consider it a compliment—they trust you enough to be themselves around you.
8 If you aren’t sure about their needs, ask.
It’s okay to ask an autistic person about how you can accommodate their needs. Asking is much better than assuming. People who are labeled as “high functioning” often are expected to adapt to non-autistic standards (however painful or difficult it might be), while “low functioning” people might be treated as if they cannot understand anything, let alone their minds or needs. Being asked about their needs is often a relief.
It doesn’t have to be a big deal: all you’re asking is “What can I do to help?”
This will improve the quality of your interactions—a girl who was previously inattentive in a cafeteria might become an active conversation partner in a quiet, non-distracting cafe.
It may take them time to respond, and they may revise their responses later. Autism is a complex disability, and it’s difficult to think of very important aspect off of the top of their heads.
9 Consider reading about autism.
The internet is full of information from autistic-run organizations and autistic writers (like Cynthia Kim and Amy Sequenzia) who offer insights into the ways their minds work. Kim’s website has a list of recommended blogs in the sidebar.
Beware groups that exclude autistic people, focus on what “burdens” and “disasters” they are, or portray themselves as anti-autism. These groups are not helpful, and not accurate. Listen to real autistic people.
Some parents and therapists exist who write compassionate, insightful resources. For example, Ariane Zurcher of Emma’s Hope Book and Dr. Jonine Biesman are well regarded among autistic people. These people can also provide good information.
10 Remember that autism is more than a list of deficits and challenges.
It also comes with some significant strengths, that can make autistic people be very good friends. Many autistic people are funny, genuine, loyal, loving, and insightful. Recognize your friend’s individual strengths, and appreciate them for the person they are. You can acknowledge a disability while still appreciating the person as a worthwhile, likable human being.
11 Try to be understanding.
Every autistic person is different, and their differences may make them seem odd or even rude. It might be because of a disability that they haven’t disclosed, a co-occurring condition, or a lack of understanding of social rules. Most likely, they never intended to be rude, and feel upset and apologetic if they learn that they hurt someone’s feelings.
Part 2 Conversing
1 Don’t wait for the autistic person to start a conversation.
Many autistic people have trouble starting conversations, and might not pick up on the clues that you want to talk to them. If you want to talk to them, just go and do it! Don’t worry if it seems awkward, since most autistic people are used to a little awkwardness anyway.
2 Find some common ground.
Most autistic people have a few topics that they’re particularly passionate about,
and they love to talk about them if they believe you’re interested.
3 Keep your questions polite.
If you have questions about autism, it’s okay to ask, but avoid asking questions such as “Can you fall in love?” or “Do autistic people have bellybuttons too?” since they are demeaning and rude. Don’t ask an autistic person anything that you wouldn’t feel comfortable asking a non-autistic person.
If you aren’t sure if a question is appropriate or not, look it up on the internet. That way, you can save your embarrassment for yourself as you realize that of course autistic people have bellybuttons, and you won’t make anyone uncomfortable by accident.
4 Set boundaries as needed.
Since autistic people may not always pick up on social cues, you might have to be explicit, rather than dropping hints. Here are several things you can say to compassionately and politely set a boundary: “It’s been nice talking about cats, but I’m a little tired of the subject right now. Could we talk about school or something else instead, and talk more about cats later?”
“I need to go work on a project now, okay? I’ll see you at dinner.”
“Well, I’d better hurry, so I won’t be late for my meeting. Catch you later!”
“I need some alone time right now.”
5 Listen to them.
Sometimes, people around an autistic person get caught up in therapies and training, to the point that they forget that the autistic person is a person with thoughts and emotions. Give your friend a chance to be understood.
6 Be direct when you need to finish a conversation (if needed).
If you want to leave or do something else, it’s best to be polite and clear.
Politely get their attention and explain that you have to go.
Autistic people may miss subtle signs that you want to leave. If you’re talking about something that doesn’t interest them, they might not know how to change the subject or let you know that they’d rather go do something else. If they act abrupt or leave unexpectedly, brush it off. They probably didn’t mean any harm by it.
7 Appreciate them for who they are.
It’s too common for organizations and non-autistic people to treat autism like a blight or disease that must be “cured.” As this goes for many other mental health conditions.
Most autistic people just want to be loved, autism and all, and treated like equal human beings. Showing unconditional acceptance means the world to them.