How to be an ally to an autistic person (part 2)

To support autistic and other neurodiverse people, it is important that you learn more about autism and neurodiversity so you can understand the variety and complexity of autistic identities.

All autistic people are different, which means it is best to combine reading and learning about autism with asking the autistic people in your life on what they need and how they experience life. Listen to autistic voices, whether they are verbal or not.

Do not listen to organizations like Autism Speaks, which is a cruel hate organization that traumatizes autistic individuals with a discourse of autism as an illness, or any other non-autistic voice that claims to speak on autistic identity.

Though awareness and knowledge are key, after all acceptance is the fundamental part we really need. We are certainly different, but we’re not wrong.

Also check out the previous blogpost on how to be an ally to autistic people, which writes on ableist micro-aggressions.

Here are some other basic tips on how to support and be a better friend/partner/colleague/family member to an autistic person in your life.

Basic toolkit for allistic[1] people

Communication

  1. We need you to be specific and direct. And honest, obviously. You need to communicate clearly and to be speaking out verbally more things than you’d usually do with other people. Or write it out, as a lot of autistic people tend to prefer written communication.

We often don’t do well with hints or subtlety and can more easily misinterpret something (and you’ll easily misinterpret us). Just tell us clearly and straight forward how you feel and what’s important, or what you expect from us.

If you fell in love with an autistic person, there is a big chance the person will not notice until you tell them. The best way to flirt or to become friends with an autistic person is pure and direct honesty. This is really important, because there is also a danger zone in misinterpretations when it comes to physical interactions: speak clear and be honest about your intentions.

  • We’re often very honest beings, but most of us struggle when we’re allowed to say what or what not. Honesty is not always appropriate. Apologizing in advance, but you’ll always get an honest answer. So if you don’t want to know ‘how it is going’, don’t ask.
neurotypical = non-autistic
  • Don’t laugh at us for not understanding your sarcastic, metaphorical, or hypothetical phrases. Try to not use this when you speak with us directly. We tend to take things literally.

When in group, it’s helpful if you can say when you or someone else said something sarcastic or hypothetical. Just explain it. We need to know what’s going on. It feels like everyone else is speaking another language and we don’t understand it. Same with certain social cues …

  • When you interact with someone with Selective Mutism (SM), don’t put any pressure on them to respond. SM is an autistic trait, though not all autistic people experience this. It means that a person loses the capability to speak in certain situations, it’s a form of triggered dissociating. For example, when a person is overwhelmed, in panic, or triggered. It can be a trauma-driven response too. You can ask the person on other moments what they need in these situations.
  • Don’t call. Just send a message. A lot of autistic people struggle with phone calls. (Not all of us, we’re all different). Take this into account in your workplace: is it accessible for people who experience making a phone call as a huge obstacle?
  • Autistic identities can vary into various extremes, the important thing for allistics is to know in what end of the extremes the person is, and to give them space to be themselves without judgement or forcing them to be different. If you do struggle with some aspect of these extremes (fe, talking too much and not knowing when to be silent), you can just talk to them and make some rules together to create spaces of silence.

    Some are extremely introvert and silent and will use very little words to communicate (mostly autistic men), others will appear to never stop talking (mostly autistic women). Some will stand too close, others too far; some will stare too much into your eyeballs, others will avoid looking at you at all costs.
  • Finally, we often struggle with small talk and keeping the flow of a conversation going. Our ways of communicating seem to be different.

Sensory issues

  • Respect our stimming. Stimming (short for ‘self-stimulatory behaviours’) are repetitive soothing behaviours we need to do to deal with emotions and sensory input. It can be auditive, verbal, sensory, tactile, visual, or other.

Some examples of stimming are bouncing, flapping hands, rocking back and forth, rubbing soft textures, turning in pirouettes, or walking in circles, visual stimulation by looking to turning objects, auditive stimulation with certain sounds, fidgeting with something, moving fingers, toes or head, …

Respect means different things for different people. I’ve noticed that it feels for lots of us aggressive and humiliating when people start copying our stims, mostly because they think it is funny or cute. For the record: I do not stim just ‘because I’m feeling a bit crazy’. I stim when I’m overwhelmed, when I need to cope with the input. When people copy me I feel as if they are making fun of me, whether or not this was their intention, that’s how it feels.

  • Know that we experience sensory input way more intense than anyone else. Mostly this is about not having a filter. Everything just comes right inside with an immense intensity. We have a hyper-awareness of sensory input, though also hypo-sense can be an autistic trait. It’s all about the extremes. For example, I have hyper-sense in all of them except smell, that’s hypo for me which means I barely smell anything.

Each autistic individual has different sensory issues and needs, so ask us about our issues and needs, and ask how you can help. Don’t gaslight[2] by saying that ‘it’s not that bad’, ‘it’s not so loud’, ‘you will get used to it’ etcetera.

Autistic people are not ‘drama queens’ or ‘exaggerating’. These things are real for us and we have no need for more gaslighting. We might experience pain more intense, get overwhelmed by the bright lights in a classroom, the noises of cars or voices etcetera. Acknowledge our struggles with the sensory input and help us where you can by respecting our needs and boundaries.

Related: some autistic individuals need to wear sunglasses inside to deal with sensory light issues, noise cancelling headphones everywhere to deal with auditive sensory issues, or a hoodie to deal with energetic sensory issues. And many other tools to deal with the world outside. Respect and accept their needs.

Social interaction

  1. Include us! Invite us. Make plans with us. We are used to be left out, uninvited, and ignored. We are used to be abandoned because we’re too special, too different, or too difficult. We need friends who show us they care. It is difficult for us to initiate contact, out of fear of being too much, so we often end up isolating ourselves for way too long while it is really damaging. We need you to initiate contact and include us in your plans.

Though of course there needs to be room for taking a step back when overwhelmed. And we can easily get overextended when anxiety becomes heavy, or we had to do groceries and were so exhausted after this that we couldn’t deal with anything more. So we cancel, we cancel a lot. It is difficult to understand your own boundaries when they are so different from all the people around you. Be patient while we learn about our own differences. Don’t take it personal when we cancel or postpone, this is about our own mental health, not about you.  

  • We have different ways of telling you that we like you. We info dump on you about our lives and curious facts we learned, or meaningful insights we had. We give you small, random things we like or we think you’d like, for example memes, a book tip, a rock we found, etcetera. We really like ‘parallel play’: being together alone, each doing their own thing at the same time in the same space.
  • Don’t underestimate or belittle us. Autistic kids grow up to be autistic adults. Seems a weird statement, but one that people often forget as they see autism or ADHD as something that happens with kids only. Important note: it doesn’t go away – it’s who we are – and we need understanding, acceptance and assistance. Often people treat us as if we’re a little behind after knowing we’re autistic … Autism is not the same as a intellectual disability, at all. Autistic people can have all kinds of intelligence, and one thing that is fairly common is a split-IQ where the verbal part is extremely high and the performal part is average or low.
  • Don’t overestimate us or neglect our struggles. Even though we seem perfectly capable in certain aspects of life, we can struggle with some seemingly weird things. Often, and especially with autistic women, people tend to see only their mask and not the struggles behind the mask. When an autistic person tells you they struggle with something, you should accept this as truth and try to help instead of gaslighting that person by saying ‘it’s not such a big deal’ or they should just be more normal. Maybe they hold a PhD but can’t tie their shoelaces or struggle with doing groceries. Don’t judge.
  • Related to the previous one: let us set our own boundaries and expectations of life. We might be very intelligent but struggle with basic selfcare or household chores or social interactions, and not be able to truly ‘express our potential’. We really don’t need more pressure. We need to find mildness towards ourselves and accept that we are different, so we need you to accept this as well.
  • Be patient with us. It is not easy to live in this world as an autistic individual and we have a lot of struggles. Your patience and support will really help us reduce our anxiety.
  • Don’t treat your autistic friend as a ‘project’ or charity work. If you would only meet with us or support us because it makes you feel like a good person, then don’t. We do not need your pity. You should want to be with us for who we are, and really want to be friends, and not just because you think you should help us.

Author: Maysa Mariposa

If you have any questions or something you’d like to discuss related to this post, feel free to contact the author via Facebook ‘Maysa Mariposa’.

Sources


[1] allistic people are allies to autistic people.

[2] gaslighting is a form of emotional abuse which means that a person is made to question their own thoughts, memories, experiences, and sensations.

UNDIVIDED for KU Leuven

UNDIVIDED is a student-faculty diversity initiative at KU Leuven. For a more inclusive university. Contact us at UNDIVIDED@kuleuven.be or on our social media.

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