Some people are easy to get to know. After brief chit-chat you have a pretty good idea of who they are, common interests, and where they register on your potential friend meter. Other times, someone may seem a little “off” or “odd”. It seems your new acquaintance isn’t making eye contact or absorbing what you’re saying. Information gathering is absent; polite personal inquiries don’t ensue. Even if your attentiveness provokes heaps of happily shared information, the exchange doesn’t cultivate fertile soil for growing a mutually balanced friendship.
You might take an educated guess that the person you’re talking to is on the autistic spectrum. Not engaging further is a common response. But what a loss! Autistic people in their own unique and quirky way have a lot to offer. Yet, it’s totally understandable that some people feel uncomfortable and keep their distance. It’s hard to socialize with someone whose responses are out of sync with what we are used to. And most of us haven’t been exposed to the notion of neurodiversity. Steve Silberman, in his book, NeuroTribes, defines neurodiversity as “the notion that conditions like autism, dyslexia, and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) should be regarded as naturally occurring cognitive variations with distinctive strengths that have contributed to the evolution of technology and culture rather than mere checklists of deficits and dysfunctions.”
Lately this is beginning to change. When I tell people that I work with kids and young adults on the autistic spectrum, I often receive a response such as, “My cousin (or neighbor or friend’s child…) is autistic.” Not so long ago, people automatically assumed I said “artistic” when I actually said “autistic”. These days most people know someone on the autistic spectrum and are eager to understand more.
There are some fundamental differences in the way an autistic person processes shared social and environmental space as compared to a neurotypical individual. Being aware of these differences will help you to relate.
1. First of all, once you recognize that someone’s responses are out of sync and unexpected, look beyond missed social cues, an appearance of disinterest, and lack of initial emotional reciprocity to get to know the person. If it feels comfortable, gently redirect their soliloquy about Minecraft or a favorite Disney movie to a mutual exchange. At the same time, be accepting of and open to the neurological differences that many people on the spectrum demonstrate. It can be extremely interesting and informative to discover how someone else’s mind works. Sometimes these differences include an extraordinary ability to observe and explore things in depth. This hyper-focus has led to dramatic advancements in science, technology, art, and industry over many hundreds of years by people who are considered to be on the autistic spectrum (Tesla, Einstein, Cavendish, Grandin, Newton, Michelangelo). Obviously not every autistic person is a genius or has a quirky mental talent, but most have a specialty or focus that is uniquely interesting.
2. Notice the sensory and perceptual differences and preferences that exist because of the way the autistic brain is wired. Often there are marked sensitivities to loud noises, common fabrics used in clothing, and the lighting used in stores and schools. Imagine the disadvantage of living in a world where just getting dressed or being at work or school could be painful. Keep this in mind when suggesting environments for socialization by avoiding loud and overly bright places like a high school basketball game for example.
3. The autistic brain is wired differently. One result is difficulty seeing the whole picture, leading to a tendency to miss cues and not easily recognize organizational patterns. This can wreak havoc on the executive functioning capabilities of many people with autism. One of my students needed to buy pancake batter at the local supermarket. Instead of looking at the signs above each aisle that would lead him to similar products, he began at the first aisle at one side of the store and attempted to look at every single item displayed to see if it was pancake batter. It would’ve taken hours if he hadn’t been advised to look up and see the organizational system in play. As a friend, or roommate, or relative of someone who focuses mostly on trees, you can point out the forest. Help them be aware of the overarching pattern in various environments or concepts when necessary.
4. I’ve worked with many children on the spectrum who prefer limited social contact. Typical social exchanges take place faster than a sent text message. It’s often difficult for the autistic mind to process and respond in the expected time frame. Their subsequent reaction may be overly literal and out of sync with the rhythm of the conversation and therefore off-putting to others. This can lead to a continuous cycle of marginalization and bullying. For these kids, it just feels safer and easier to isolate and find passions (video games, art, movies) that don’t require fast paced social responses. It becomes incumbent upon the neurotypical person to have patience. This doesn’t mean that you indulge a social interaction that is one-sided and all about the person with autism. In fact, it means that you keep sharing your likes and dislikes and preferences and delights in as balanced a way as you can.
Perhaps the next time you meet someone who seems a bit awkward or see someone somewhat off-kilter in the supermarket, or witness a child with strange mannerisms, take another look with new eyes. He or she may not fit into your predetermined social criteria as someone with whom you can easily align, but using the keys outlined here will help you unlock the door to building a meaningful relationship.