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Let’s Talk about Autism

You’ve probably encountered someone with autism, even if you didn’t know it at the time. This condition is more common than you may think.

How Common Is Autism?

One in 44 children are diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Boys are four times more likely to be diagnosed with this condition than girls, and it affects all ethnic and socioeconomic groups. According to Autism Speaks, an estimated 707,000 to 1,116,000 teens with autism will enter adulthood over the next decade.

I grew up with a sibling who has autism, so I have the benefit of firsthand experience. My brother is one year younger than me, and I remember my parents really advocating for him. For example, they brought in speech therapy when he was young to help him with his verbal skills. He can do a lot of the same things as everyone else, but there are differences too.

Autism Is a Spectrum

That’s the most important lesson I’ve learned: you can’t put people with autism all in one category. It’s very much a spectrum disorder. Each person faces different challenges with things like social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech and nonverbal communication. Some people are high functioning and others may have developmental delays or mental retardation.

What they often have in common is difficulty with sensory processing, and again, the spectrum is wide. People with autism can be over-responsive or under-responsive to certain sights, sounds, smells, tastes and more. When you see them fidgeting or moving in a repetitive way, there’s a reason for that. They’re trying to calm themselves by blocking out uncomfortable sensory input.

When you understand more about this condition, you can be more accepting of these differences. My brother, for example, prefers to wear headphones while riding in a car. He’s not intentionally ignoring others. He’s simply controlling his environment to avoid becoming overstimulated. That’s just autism.

How to Support Those on the Autism Spectrum

So what should you do when you encounter someone with autism? Be patient, be kind and remember that person is someone’s much-loved sibling or child. Here’s 10 ways you can support those on the autism spectrum:

  1. Don’t try to force eye contact.
  2. Speak with a softer voice.
  3. Take time to explain things clearly.
  4. Be patient during conversations. Pause to give them time to answer.
  5. Offer clear and simple choices. Instead of asking what they want to eat, ask: “Would you like pizza or a hamburger?”
  6. If you want to start a conversation, try asking about their favorite interest or hobby. Be ready to gently redirect the conversation if they go on for too long. Conversely, accept that others are less verbal and may not respond.
  7. Be considerate of sensory issues and triggers. Some might have difficulty in loud places or with strong smells, for example.
  8. Redirect gently if common social boundaries are being overstepped. For example, if someone stands too close to you, ask them to give you a specific amount of space by demonstrating the distance with your hands.
  9. Avoid idioms and slang as people with autism tend to be concrete thinkers. Say “Let’s go” instead of “Let’s hit the road.”
  10. Don’t speak to a caregiver rather than the person with autism, but do ask a caregiver for help if needed.
Logan Helge, APRN
Logan Helge, APRN

Logan Helge, APRN, is an advanced practice registered nurse at CHI Health.

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