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5 Tips for How to Deal with Autism in Adults

Tips for Working With Adults on the Autism Spectrum

What is Autism Spectrum Disorder?

Autism spectrum disorder or ASD is a developmental disorder that can impact behavior and communication.  According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM 5) by the American Psychiatric Association, diagnostic criteria includes:

These autism symptoms must be present in the early developmental period and are unable to be explained by intellectual disability or global developmental delay.  To diagnose ASD, the symptoms must cause clinically significant impairment in areas of functioning that include social and occupational.

The DSM-5 merged four distinct autism diagnoses into the diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder.  Individuals previously diagnosed with one of these are included in the new ASD diagnosis.  These included:

Autism is a spectrum, which is why we can’t categorize individuals with autism into one simple group. We also can’t treat autistic people the same, as each person is unique and has their own needs. 

Not all adults with ASD need special assistance; however, depending upon their ability to function independently, some need continued help. This might entail working with:

How to work with autistic adults

Some individuals with autism spectrum disorder live with their family or other loved ones, some live in group homes for individuals with special needs, while others live quite well independently with little to no outside assistance. 

Many adults on the autism spectrum have specific qualities which can make life especially challenging. Some individuals may not be as verbal as others or have the best social skills, which makes functional communication and socializing a struggle. Others may need a lot of prompting, training, and reinforcing to learn how to do daily life skills independently. Not all adults with ASD have a job or career path, but many do. Those who help these individuals can prepare them for job responsibilities and instill a great work ethic.

Those working with adults with autism are usually:

Even staff with experience can still continue to learn more about the world of autism. Learning how to deal with autism in adults helps to ensure they:

Continue reading for five tips for working with autistic adults.  

Learn to Communicate Differently 

The autism spectrum actually refers to a range of disorders. Each disorder has its own specific symptoms and they are sub-classified to make the diagnosis process easier. Some of these disorders have common traits, such as a struggle with speech and language. This entails both verbal and nonverbal language, as well as expressive and receptive language skills and functional communication skills.  You will need to learn how to help adults with autism communicate in their preferred way.

An autistic person at the higher end of the spectrum is able to speak with a fluent vocabulary, while those on the lower end may only use sounds and other strategies to communicate. Some individuals with autism who are completely non-verbal may need to get their needs and wants across by relying on:

Speak to adults with ASD with respect and in a manner you would speak to anyone else.   Your vocabulary can change depending on the developmental level to whom you are speaking, but there is no reason to act any different. 

Autism experts at the May Institute offer great advice for speaking with adults with ASD.

Disabilities come in all forms––do not assume that each person with autism spectrum disorder has a low cognitive ability. 

Using pet names, terms of endearment, or calling someone “sweetie” isn’t appropriate. Keep things professional and respectful. 

When learning how to communicate with autistic adults, you’ll discover is best to avoid the use of sarcasm and metaphors, as autistic individuals are typically very literal and do understand it.

Take the role of an active listener. Whether your friend is telling a story or needs to express his or her feelings, truly hear what they have to say. 

It is important to allow ample time when communicating––not everyone with an autism spectrum disorder has the same processing speed.  

Your job is to help adults with autism spectrum disorders. If you notice an inappropriate behavior or have a better way of saying/doing something, offer immediate, non-judgmental feedback. 

When working with family members or other professionals, address them along with the person with autism if everyone is in the same room. 

Keep in mind that everyone is different and has a different communication style––even those without autism! 

Understand and Respect Boundaries 

Setting and maintaining boundaries will be a beneficial move when working with autistic adults. Not only do you need to set boundaries of your own, whether those be verbal or physical, but you also need to understand your client’s boundaries. 

Many individuals with autism spectrum disorder experience sensory overload from stimuli that many other individuals would find comfortable. It is important to understand some people on the autism spectrum do not enjoy common physical gestures such as:

When beginning work with your client, ask them or one of their loved ones what their preferences are. During this conversation, go ahead and set your own boundaries.

If a lack of boundaries becomes an issue for either party, writing a social story or making a boundary “contract” might be beneficial. 

Oftentimes, those with an autism diagnosis thrive when given:

Setting specific expectations and boundaries might help your client feel safe and secure and have a better understanding of what the daily routine looks like. 

Just remember that they aren’t the only ones who need to keep appropriate boundaries––you do as well! 

Keep Calm and Carry On

Anxiety is a well-known state of mind for many people with autism. Worrying about uncertainty, having an unexpected change in routine, being overloaded with sensory stimuli, or being triggered by a social situation are all realistic causes of anxiety for adults with ASD. 

During times when your client feels panicked and upset in social interactions, it is important that their surrounding environment remain calm and peaceful. Raised voices increase tension and panic. Speaking softly and allowing them their personal space works well. It may also be helpful to use distraction with a task they enjoy. Examples include:

Those with autism are often incredibly meticulous. Try moving their attention from disorganization back to organization by sorting pieces according to size for example, as this gives a sense of structure and will be soothing to them.

There are a plethora of calming exercises and self-soothing strategies available for adults with ASD. Try one of these strategies for adults with autism if you find your client in an anxious situation:

Each person with autism is different in how they handle stress and what helps them calm down. Learn more about your clients and how they respond to triggers and what they prefer while calming down. 

Be Prepared and Organized 

When working with autistic people, be prepared for the worst and expect the best! 

Whether you are staying home or going out in the community, have a set schedule prepared for your client the day before so that s/he is ready and feels comfortable. If any unexpected changes occur, communicate this to your client ASAP and ensure they feel good about the change. 

At times, going out into the community may be challenging. Those around you and your client with autism might not understand the disorder and this can be upsetting. Prepare for going out by having alternate plans if the original plan falls through. Have calming strategies in place if anxiety hits. Also, ensure that your client is working on skills while out in the community. This might be:

Practicing these things at home before heading out into the community will help your client feel more at ease and be mentally prepared. 

Discussing unfamiliar situations ahead of time and making use of distractions in order to avoid the escalation of anxiety are two important skills needed to work with autistic adults.

Keep Things Consistent

It is common for adults with ASD to struggle with a change in routine, especially if it is unexpected. Many of them prefer to be prepared and know what to expect in new situations––as do most people who don’t have autism. Remember to always stick to a regular schedule. Meals and hygiene practices might need to be routine and take place at the same time each day. Leisure time and work time can also occur on a set schedule. You should learn more about your client regarding how consistent they want things to be because not everyone will be the same surrounding this issue. Some adults with ASD might not have a problem with a change in schedule.  

If you do need to keep a rather dependable schedule, using timers, clocks, visual schedules, digital schedules, etc. can help keep things consistent. 

Overall, consistency can create peace of mind and a feeling of security for individuals with autism. 

Help is available

Joining a support group is a great way for parents and caregivers in the autism community to share experiences and build supportive relationships.  Caregivers of autistic children and adults can learn about:

There’s no one-size-fits-all when it comes to these groups.  Here are a few types you are likely to find.

These groups are led by parents or family members of individuals with autism.  They provide emotional support and feeling of community.

Educational support groups are dedicated spaces to share the latest autism information including the latest best practices and techniques used by professionals.

These are led by professionals who work with individuals on the autism spectrum.  They could be led by a team or organization who offer support services.

Family support groups focus on the impact an ASD diagnosis has on the family.  They may share daily challenges or share beneficial community resources.

Tips for Working With Adults on the Autism Spectrum: Conclusion

Adults with ASD are amazing individuals with varied:

Working with individuals on the spectrum can be challenging at times, although it mostly can be worthwhile and wonderful. Adults with ASD, no matter the support they have from loved ones, can use an extra empathetic and caring person in their lives. 

Brittany Cerny

Master of Education (M.Ed.) | Northeastern State University

Behavior and Learning Disorders | Georgia State University

Updated June 2022



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