An autism diagnosis is not something you should keep secret. At some point, you will be explaining autism to your friends and family and relying on them for understanding and support. Since these are the people closest to you in life, who will be spending time with you or taking care of your child, it’s essential to be thorough and answer any pressing questions while explaining the condition.
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a neurodevelopmental condition that affects how a person perceives the world, socializes, communicates, and deals with stimuli. As a complex and diverse spectrum disorder, autism can manifest in various ways, and friends and family members need to gain a deeper understanding of this condition to provide support and love.
At ABA Centers of America, we believe in autism awareness. One in 36 children aged eight and under have autism. They are your neighbors, peers, coworkers, and friends; treating them with camaraderie and compassion is vital. As advocates for autism, we want to give you all the tools necessary to bring your loved ones up to speed and equip them with the right mindset toward ASD.
This article will explore what autism is, how it can affect an individual, why it’s crucial to avoid stigmatization, and how friends and family can play an active role in creating a supportive environment.
What is Autism?
Autism is a lifelong neurological condition that typically becomes apparent in early childhood. It affects individuals’ understanding and response to social cues, communication, and sensory experiences. The term “spectrum” implies that autism varies widely in its presentation and severity, ranging from mild to severe.
The main characteristics of autism include:
- Social Communication Challenges: Individuals on the spectrum struggle to understand non-verbal cues, maintain eye contact, and interpret gestures or facial expressions. They may also engage in echolalia or somewhat meaningless repeating words.
- Repetitive Behaviors: People with ASD may engage in repetitive movements or have specific routines that provide comfort and predictability.
- Sensory Sensitivities: Neurodivergent people are sensitive to lights, sounds, textures, touch, proximity, crowds, and other sensory stimuli.
- Narrow Interests: People with ASD develop intense interests in specific topics or subjects to the exclusion of other things.
- Difficulty with Changes: Struggling with unexpected changes in plans, schedules, foods, clothing, routines, or environments.
During social interactions, those with autism won’t always follow what you and I might believe is conventional wisdom. They may not make eye contact or respond to anything they aren’t interested in. When the bill comes, they might not know it’s proper to pay it. Kids with autism may act out or run away when something doesn’t go their way. Since it is a spectrum condition, behaviors may range from dangerous to innocuous. Below, we will address why this happens and how to deal with the stigma.
Explaining Autism to Your Friends and Family
The difficulty of ensuring your friends and family understand autism isn’t explaining the condition but getting them to see the reasons behind some challenging behavior. For example, if your toddler is diagnosed with autism and when they get hungry, they hit you to attract attention instead of pointing or speaking. Neurodivergent individuals find behaviors they can’t understand distressing and assume it’s improper rearing instead of a medically recognized disorder. Below are some tips to help you along the important process of explaining autism to your friends and family:
1. Start with Empathy and Compassion
Begin the conversation by letting your friends and family know you trust them and value their judgment. You catch more flies with honey than vinegar, and if they feel welcome as a part of the process, they’ll be more receptive listeners and take the established research about the condition seriously.
2. Emphasize Neurodiversity
Stigmatization is a terrible thing that the autism awareness community has spent decades fighting against. Autism is a different way of processing information and experiencing the world. It does not indicate a lack of intelligence or capability. Many individuals with autism have unique talents and strengths that we should celebrate.
Educate your friends and family about neurodiversity and how it represents the natural variation in human brains. Like physical differences, such as height or eye color, neurodiversity includes a wide range of cognitive abilities and behaviors. Emphasize that neurodivergent individuals, like your child with autism, have unique strengths and challenges.
Everyone has different language preferences, but some individuals feel strongly about person-first language when talking about individuals with autism. Instead of “autistic person,” tell your loved ones that “person with autism” is preferable. This manner of speaking emphasizes personhood before the condition.
3. Explain Coping Mechanisms
It’s important to emphasize that the behaviors exhibited by your child with autism are not intentional misbehavior, malicious, or a result of disobedience. They are a response to their unique neurology and sensory processing differences and simply trying to express wants, needs, and desires with limited verbal ability. These behaviors may occur due to challenges in communication, emotional regulation, or sensory processing rather than intentional acts of defiance.
Help your family understand that when a child with autism gets overwhelmed by something stressful, they can experience sensory overload. Their primary goal is to escape the painful negative stimuli; as a result, they may engage in actions others perceive as rude. Meltdowns are not tantrums; they are an outward expression of inner distress, and the individual has little control during this state.
Share with your friends and family the coping strategies your child employs to manage overwhelming situations. These strategies might include stimming (self-stimulating behaviors like rocking, hand-flapping, or finger-tapping), repeating phrases (echolalia), or seeking a safe, quiet space to calm down. By recognizing these coping mechanisms, your friends and family can better understand when your child is trying to self-regulate.
Explain that your child has triggers and stressors, things in an environment that can seriously cause them anxiety. By teaching your friends and family what these stressors are and how to reduce exposure, you can ensure everyone gets along while keeping your child with ASD safe from difficult sensory situations.
4. Teach Friends and Family How to Help
You can offer insight into the strategies or activities that help your child feel calm and secure. If your child enjoys engaging in a particular interest, hugging a favorite stuffed animal, or engaging in deep breathing exercises, let your close ones know this helps.
Encourage your friends and family to be supportive and understanding when your child seeks comfort. A solid technique to teach friends and family is the sensory-free space, a private place in their house where the child can decompress and relax if they feel overwhelmed.
Finally, steer your friends and family away from punishment. Decades of research show that Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) is the best therapy for individuals on the spectrum. It helps them learn communication, social, academic, and daily living skills that significantly impact their quality of life. One of the consistent things that board-certified ABA practitioners have discovered is that negative reinforcement or punishment is not an effective or humane way to teach kids.
Instead, focus on positive reinforcement. Consistently reward a child with ASD for behaving well or learning a new skill. Over time, they will master it with joy without realizing they were taught something in the first place!
ABA Centers of America and Autism
The better an individual with autism can adapt to a stressful world, the easier it will be to introduce them to new experiences, friends, and family. ABA Centers of America is here to help you get your loved one with ASD ready to meet life’s challenges. We offer the highest quality ABA care, administered by highly trained board-certified experts compassionate to your every need. With individualized plans, your child can work on their strengths and shore up their weaknesses on their way to happiness and independence.