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:
- persistent deficits in social communication and social interaction across multiple contexts
- restricted, repetitive behaviors, interests or activities
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:
- autistic disorder
- childhood disintegrative disorder
- pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified
- Asperger’s syndrome (considered high functioning autism)
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:
- an applied behavior analyst
- a life coach
- a mentor
- a home health care aid who comes in daily
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:
- get the best treatment possible
- utilize their abilities
- get the most out of life
Continue reading for five tips for working with autistic adults.
Learn to Communicate Differently
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:
- sign language
- assistive technology
- nonverbal communication
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.
- Address him or her as you would any other adult, not a child.
Disabilities come in all forms––do not assume that each person with autism spectrum disorder has a low cognitive ability.
- Avoid using words or phrases that are too familiar or personal.
Using pet names, terms of endearment, or calling someone “sweetie” isn’t appropriate. Keep things professional and respectful.
- Say what you mean.
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 time to listen.
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.
- If you ask a question, wait for a response.
It is important to allow ample time when communicating––not everyone with an autism spectrum disorder has the same processing speed.
- Provide meaningful feedback
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.
- Don’t speak as if the person is not in the room.
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:
- pats on the back
- being physically close in proximity
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
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:
- assembling a puzzle
- listening to music
- reading a book
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:
- Use a weighted vest or blanket
- Use essential oils
- Play with putty or another type of fidget
- Practice breathing exercises
- Play a guided meditation on a phone or TV
- Utilize EFT tapping
- Go for a walk
- Play with a pet
- Get creative with art
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 social skills
- paying for food by counting out money
- using appropriate communication
- finding items inside a store
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
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:
- Relevant workshops in their area (or online groups)
- Innovative therapies
- Autism services in their community
- Effective methods for dealing with daily challenges
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 Autism Support Groups
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:
- physical and cognitive abilities
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.
Master of Education (M.Ed.) | Northeastern State University
Behavior and Learning Disorders | Georgia State University
Updated June 2022
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