How to support a loved one with autism

If autism is affecting the life of a loved one, how can you show support?

09 February 2015
by Annie Brookstone

While so much about autism remains shrouded in mystery, it can be difficult for well-intentioned friends and family to know what to say or do in the face of the condition – for example, when someone’s child is diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

“What people should know is that being on the autistic spectrum does not mean a person should be treated as if they are ill, but it does mean understanding that they are different in the way they react and interact on some levels,” explains Lily Masson, a life coach with experience assisting the parents of children on this spectrum. “These are broadly related to social interaction, executive functioning, varying levels of sensory hypo- or hypersensitivity, resistance or anxiety around change and narrow range of interests. They also struggle to anticipate life, which is why they prefer to stick to the tried-and-trusted. The person on the spectrum is simply slightly differently wired neurologically to people who are ‘neuro-typical’.”

Being aware of how that “wiring” affects a person can inform the best and most caring way to interact with them, which may not be what would be best for a more neuro-typical individual. Masson explains, “Children on the spectrum may not enjoy too much physical closeness or eye contact. They may also talk in a monotone or slightly louder than they should. Wait for the child to approach you rather than rushing in with a bear hug. If a regular routine is going to change, this should be explained to the child. Every outing or holiday outside of the usual routine should also be carefully communicated, so the child knows what to expect. The child may have odd mannerisms and this should not be commented on. It is often just a form of self-soothing in a social environment that causes anxiety.”

Masson says being sensitive to the needs of a loved one with an ASD child will include keeping the following in mind:

  • Routines should be adhered to. (Allow social arrangements to be structured around their routine.)
  • The child’s diet may be adjusted due to food sensitivities. Enquire about these if you are offering to cook meals or assist with grocery shopping from time to time.
  • The child may not cope in a typical school environment so their learning programme may have to be adjusted to accommodate executive function difficulties. Socialising can be structured around small groups, or one-on-one interaction with other like-minded friends.

Remember that speculation, myths and unproven science are unhelpful. You can better show your support with unconditional love and understanding.