Communicating with individuals with autism requires knowledge, patience, and flexibility

Americas, August 12 2016

RANDOLPH, MASS.: Most of us who encounter a child or adult engaging in challenging behavior in public can, and often do, choose to just ignore them. But what if that person is someone on the autism spectrum who is having difficulty communicating? What if your job requires that you interact with people who are exhibiting unusual or confusing behavior, or who aren’t responding in typical ways? Given the rising incidence rate of autism, it is likely that all of us will regularly encounter children or adults with autism.

When those encounters occur, all of us – from first responders to store clerks to parents at a playground – may be better able to diffuse difficult situations or contribute to successful encounters with people on the spectrum if we understand the basics about autism.

Autism is a neurological disorder that affects the development of the brain. Characteristics include communication disabilities, social skills deficits, and restrictive interests/repetitive behaviors. Below, May Institute offers some additional facts about autism that may be helpful to first responders and the general public.

  • Some people with autism are non-verbal and may communicate with sign language, picture cards, communication devices, or gestures and pointing.
  • Individuals with autism who are verbal may not understand what is being said or questions that are being asked.
  • Sometimes people on the autism spectrum can be aggressive with others, or hurt themselves. These behaviors may be their way of communicating their needs. If these individuals are confronted by someone they don’t know, they may become aggressive. This is not because they want to hurt someone, but can be a way of saying, “Leave me alone.”
  • Individuals with autism may appear to be poor listeners. They may not make eye contact, or understand gestures, personal space, body language, or facial expressions.
  • It is possible that some individuals with autism have never had contact with police, firefighters, or Emergency Medical Service workers. They may not understand who they are or what they do.
  • Many people with autism have sensory issues, such as sensitivities to loud noises or bright lights. In order to protect themselves, they may cover their ears or eyes, throw tantrums, or run away.
  • Many individuals with autism exhibit what may seem to be odd or awkward movements with their hands, head, or objects.
  • This is called “stereotypic” behavior. As long as these behaviors are not hurting others, allow people with autism to engage in them, as they may be calming.
  • When talking to someone with autism, speak clearly and use concise, short phrases or sentences and a calm tone. Allow for a delayed response because it may take the person a few moments to understand what has been said. The person may not understand gestures. Avoid sarcasm and humorous statements; most people will autism will not understand them.

Whether you are a first responder or an ordinary citizen, remember to be patient with people who have autism. If they are acting out or exhibiting unusual behavior, it is probably because they are upset about a troubling situation. They want things to get better as much as you do!

May Institute is an award-winning nonprofit organization with more than 60 years of experience in serving children and adults with autism spectrum disorder and other developmental disabilities, brain injury, and behavioral health needs. The organization provides educational, rehabilitative, and behavioral healthcare services to individuals, as well as training and consultation services to professionals, organizations, and public school systems. At more than 140 service locations across the country, highly trained staff work to create new and more effective ways to meet the special needs of individuals and families across the lifespan.

For more information, call 800.778.7601 or visit

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