Autism is the fastest-growing developmental disorder, and according to the latest Center for Disease Control research, 1 in 59 children in the United States (a 15% increase) are diagnosed with autism. Autism is also four times more common in boys than girls. It's challenging to acquire exact statistics about autism in children because many adults not diagnosed with autism in early childhood go undiagnosed into adulthood. It's estimated that there are about 3.5 million Americans living with a type of autism, but all ethnic, racial, and socioeconomic groups worldwide are impacted.
Given these statistics, there's a high likelihood that you know someone that has autism or a family that is caring for someone with autism. Autism is a complex condition with a variety of signs, symptoms, and severity levels. Currently, there is no blood test or cure for autism, so early detection and intervention with treatment and services are key to improve a persons development and functionality for a lifetime. Given the prevalence and complexity of autism, it's important to be aware of ways you can support people that dealing with the condition.
Knowledge is Power
By educating yourself about autism, you are better prepared to recognize the signs and feel more confident when interacting with someone with autism. Autism is a Spectrum Disorder (ASD), meaning there are many variations as to how high or low functioning a person is developmentally and intellectually. Many people depending on where they are on the autism spectrum, live as high functioning adults. The signs and symptoms of Autism Spectrum Disorder may be hard to recognize in a high functioning person, whereas low functioning signs and symptoms are more recognizable.
Common Autism Spectrum Disorder Signs:
- Communication difficulty (verbal and nonverbal)
- Social interaction difficulty
- Has restricted interests
- Has repetitive behaviors
People with Autism Spectrum Disorder can have many strengths as well.
Common strengths of people with Autism Spectrum Disorder include:
- Remembers information for long periods of time
- Able to learn things in detail
- Strong visual and auditory learners
- Excels in math, science, music or art
It's important to remember, like with any condition or disease, that autism does not present itself the same way in every person.
Autism presents itself in a variety of ways, and our interactions may vary depending on where the person is on the autism spectrum, but some common guidelines for building rapport do apply. First and foremost, like anyone you are communicating with, be respectful. Finding common ground for communicating is key and doing so may take time and patience with a low functioning autistic individual. In contrast, a high functioning autistic individual may be more literal in their communication. It's also common for a person with autism to have less direct eye contact during conversation and to fixate on a particular topic during a conversation. Simple actions like a gentle redirection to the next topic can help move the conversation along. Whatever your interaction, be mindful that an autistic person's communication style may be very different than ours. However, patience and finding common ground are ways to start building rapport.
Sensory issues are a common challenge for people with autism. If you are interacting with an autistic person knowing what these sensory issues are will be helpful to you. Some of the sensory challenges an autistic individual may experience are high sensitivity to touch, sound, light, taste, and smell. Avoiding large, crowded spaces, or bright colors can help create a soothing environment for a person with autism and avoid sensory overload.
Sometimes boundary issues like touching and closeness within personal space can occur because of a delay in understanding common social norms. This can be easily addressed by simply asking the person the step back or creating some distance between the two of you. Modeling social norms when communicating with a person with autism helps create a structured, positive environment.
Supporting Family or Friends That are Caregivers for a Person with Autism
Chances are you already know family or friends that are autism caregivers. Just like with other caregivers, one of the best ways to show support is to give them a break from their daily routine. Let your family and friends know that you want to support them as an autistic caregiver and discuss ways you can help the caregiver. Making meals, cleaning, yard work, and childcare are great ways to support a caregiver. Remember, even a small amount of support to a caregiver can go a long way.
Supporting a Co-Worker with Autism
Individuals with autism can add different perspectives and strengths into the workplace. An individual with autism can have challenges as well, such as anxiety, communication, time management, and/or staying focused. If an issue arises at work it's important to show respect, patience, and compassion. Don't hesitate to try and get to know the person better to gain a deeper understanding of their specific strengths and challenges. Remember, each individual's experience with ACD is different.
Autism Spectrum Disorder is lifelong and impacts emotions, sensory experience, and social-interactions. As autism diagnosis rates continue to increase, it's important that we educate ourselves about the disorder. In doing so, we'll be better equipped to build relationships, understand sensory awareness, offer support to family and friends, and learn how to support autistic colleagues in the workplace.