An estimated one in 70 people have Autism Spectrum Disorder in Australia, but despite the high prevalence, community understanding about the condition is still relatively low – and it’s hurting the people with autism among us.
Kathrine Peereboom is a mum of three autistic boys and the founder of Spectrum Support, a not for profit organisation dedicated to raising awareness and providing training, support and education, in part to improve how many Australians interact with people with autism.
“A lot of people don’t even realise that a person may have autism – they just get labelled as ‘odd’ or ‘weird’,” says Kathrine. “If people knew more about autism, they may be more inclined to make an effort and understand why someone is behaving differently.”
Autism can be isolating, whether you are a child or an adult. For many people with autism, they find those around them – whether it is at work or at school – don’t understand how to engage with them. Exclusion and loneliness are a prevalent concern for many people on the spectrum, which is made all the more worrying by the frightening suicide rates among the community.
“My sons are often excluded from birthday party invitations. Even worse, kids with autism who invite school friends to their party often find no one turns up,” says Kathrine. “As a parent, this is devastating to witness, and I’d like to see more being done across our community to grow awareness of autism. If we all understood it better, we would be more giving and accepting as people.”
So, what can you do? The first step is understanding how to interact with someone who may have autism, so Kathrine has put together her tips to help you do exactly that.
Kids and adults with autism may communicate differently in social settings. For some, talking with others or answering questions can be uncomfortable, as is recognising social cues. Things many of us take for granted – like taking turns in conversations, eye contact or understanding facial expressions – can be a tremendous challenge.
“It is important to recognise the difference in communicating styles,” Kathrine says. “For example, my boys are non-verbal and are beginning to use a communication device (AAC). Overall, however, patience, persistence and kindness will always win, and will give the opportunity for their voice to be heard.”
Sometimes people with autism can seem very focused on certain subjects or topics, Kathrine says. They may want to talk about or play with those things all the time, or engage in highly repetitive behaviour, which is known as stimming. These actions could include twirling their hair, flicking or spinning objects or moving parts of their body.
“This behaviour is completely normal, safe and provides comfort, but often those who are asked to stop stimming or are bullied for their mannerisms will find it extremely difficult to stay engaged in the conversation or activity,” Kathrine says. “Forcing restrictive behaviours diverts the attention away from engaging and concentrating, to physical compliance. Remember to be kind and thoughtful, as we are all striving for acceptance.”
Using speech in unusual and untimely ways
Kids and adults with autism may speak differently and communication devices, visuals, monotone or formal approaches are common, as is using different tones or sounds.
“Continue to speak normally as you would when engaging with anyone else. While some on the spectrum may communicate differently, many non-verbal autistics have full comprehension,” Kathrine says.
Not understanding personal space
Spatial awareness is a key aspect of autism. Many people with autism do not understand what personal space means and, as a result, they can move very close to people when they are speaking or undertaking activities with them.
“Some people may find this quite confronting, and identifying that you may feel uncomfortable when they enter your personal space can be difficult,” Kathrine says. “Avoid physical touching, making an issue of it, or speaking loudly – simply take a step backwards and continue the conversation.”
Difficulty with reading emotions
Remember that autism is a spectrum, and there are many who break the stereotype of not being able to read or express emotions – however, Kathrine says, some have difficulty identifying emotions or using them in the correct context.
“When interacting with others, recognising whether someone is being funny, upset, angry or frustrated might not be instantly associated with the emotion,” Kathrine says. “Don’t be offended by something someone may say or do – or if they do not seem to understand how you are feeling.”
Kathrine adds that if it is very important to you that they understand, explaining your feelings in different ways will often help to convey your point of view. Visual aids such as pictures can often offer instant recognition without the added senses confusing the message.
Intolerance of lights, colour, sound and certain foods
Many kids and adults with autism have low tolerances for certain foods, sounds, colours and lighting.
“If you are inviting someone with autism into your home or workplace, it would be ideal and respectful to ask ahead if any of these may pose a risk and what you can do to create a welcoming environment,” says Kathrine. “Sometimes a simple light or volume adjustment can make the world of difference and create inclusion and acceptance.”
Through Spectrum Support, Kathrine is encouraging people to learn more about autism from day care environments to schools and the workplace. Knowledge creates understanding and leads to greater acceptance and, as Kathrine says, the simple acts of kindness and acceptance we show can change lives.