How to Talk to Someone with High Functioning Autism

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder that individuals are born with. Professionals can reliably diagnose ASD by the age of two. In general, individuals diagnosed on the autism spectrum have difficulty with social interactions, communication, and behaviors that often include restrictive, repetitive, and stereotyped behavioral patterns. This group of complex symptoms varies in severity from person to person.

Some individuals have severe symptoms, preventing them from living independently. Others have more mild symptoms and are considered “high functioning”. Many people with high functioning autism are able to live independently as adults. They can care for themselves, obtain a driver’s license, maintain employment, get a college degree, and function within society fairly well. They often excel in their field of interest.

High-functioning individuals learn to compensate for the social and communication challenges they endure. They learn to mimic what others say and how others behave in social situations, compensating for their inability to read social cues and engage in spontaneous conversation. Compensating allows them to hide social challenges. Because of this, symptoms of people with high functioning autism often go unnoticed, resulting in a delay in a formal diagnosis. Some individuals with ASD are not formally diagnosed until well into adulthood.

Receiving a diagnosis is often a relief for an individual who has struggled with social interaction and communication. A diagnosis validates an individual’s social struggle and why they may feel different, isolated, or unique. Individuals diagnosed with ASD often seek out others on the spectrum who understand them. Most problems occur when individuals who are NOT on the spectrum misunderstand and misinterpret a person with ASD.

Understanding how to talk with someone with high functioning autism requires an understanding of the subtle differences and needs of an individual. This understanding is especially important in situations of crisis and when an individual is in need of help. This is why it is imperative that first responders learn to identify symptoms of ASD and how to talk with someone with high functioning autism. 

10 things to help you communicate more effectively with someone who has high functioning autism.

1. A lack of emotional expression does not mean they don’t care.

Do not assume they do not care or have feelings about what is being said. Their emotional expression (affect) may not always match the situation. They may have deep feelings and passion about a situation, but not express these emotions when they are speaking or listening. 

2. Social interactions that seem scripted or awkward are not superficial.

Conversations that lack a spontaneous flow are common with individuals diagnosed with ASD. This is because they often learn what to say and how to say it by watching and mimicking the behaviors observed by characters on television and in movies. Repeatedly watching the same movie over and over helps them to mimic how people interact. They copy how close or far to stand near someone and what gestures to use during social interactions. They learn through the media because it is difficult for them to automatically learn the unwritten rules of social communication through everyday conversation. Although interactions with people diagnosed with ASD may seem scripted, know that they are making an honest effort to communicate with you. 

3. Since making eye contact with others is often unnatural, staring or glancing away during conversation is common.

For some people with high-functioning autism, eye contact is not automatic. Therefore, they learn how to make and maintain eye contact by watching others. Do not misinterpret glancing away or staring as an indication of lying or being dis-ingenuine or disinterested. Understand that making eye contact may take a great amount of effort as they attend to the conversation. 

 4. Speech difficulties such as a lack of rhythm, an odd inflection, monotone pitch, or volume that is too loud or too soft are not a sign of disrespect.

Instead, voice dis-regulation is a common characteristic of ASD, affecting some more than others. When necessary, the listener can verbally guide the person with ASD to be mindful of the environment by asking them to speak more softly or loudly according to the surroundings. Scolding, teasing, or correcting them harshly will only escalate anxiety and not help the situation.

5. Unfortunately, many individuals on the spectrum are isolated and withdrawn from the world because they are significantly misunderstood by others.

The lack of social skills, rigid behavior, and narrow fields of interest, limit the availability of social interactions. To make matters worse, some individuals are harassed, bullied, and ignored (some for their entire lives) because of social skill differences. Chronic and significant rejection can cause the individual to engage in self-harm or impulsive behaviors such as running away or lashing out. Behaviors can escalate when in an unfamiliar and high-stress situation where they lack control, such as in a courtroom or in jail. When talking with a person with high functioning autism, be mindful that they may need to establish trust with you and feel comfortable before they can participate.

6. Conversations with people with high functioning autism can be inundated with enormous amounts of facts, statistics, and encyclopedic knowledge about a subject.

Especially if they are talking about a subject they may have expert knowledge about. Some individuals may talk incessantly about the topic, causing the conversation to seem like a one-sided collection of unending facts. To encourage reciprocal conversation, the individual can be verbally redirected to answer questions, summarize points and draw a conclusion. Understand that the inability to infer what the listener is thinking or experiencing during this type of conversation is often a characteristic of ASD.

7. Expressing empathy for another person who is expressing intense emotions such as grief, anger or happiness may feel so overwhelming for a person with ASD, they may respond by shutting down all emotions.

This does not mean they don’t care or feel anything. Instead, this may indicate that the emotions are too intense and too overwhelming for their sensory system. Therefore, they shut down. An emotional shut-down causes a failure to express empathy, not a failure to feel empathy. Emotional shutdowns are probably the most misinterpreted characteristic of ASD, causing the person to be perceived as cold and uncaring. This is not the case. Emotional shutdowns are actually protective and help the person cope with the overwhelming sensory experience. if you are interacting with a person experiencing a shut-down, respond with patience. Give them time and space to absorb and understand the emotional situation. Let them know you are available to talk and support them when they are ready.

8. Persons on the spectrum are significantly more at risk to become a victim of crime rather than a suspect or perpetrator of a crime.

Individuals with ASD are vulnerable, making them more likely to be a victim of rape, child abuse, robbery, bullying, and domestic violence. Equally, they are likely to be taken advantage of in relationships and used as a resource for money or favors (sometimes sexual), and encouraged to engage in dangerous activities. When talking with a person with high functioning autism, help them understand boundaries and friendships. Teach them to be cautious with trust, money or favors that may possibly cause them harm. 

9. When experiencing a crisis or unexpected pressure-filled situation, people on the spectrum can suddenly become agitated and react impulsively by lashing out or running away, all in an effort to stop the overwhelming sensation of feeling out of control.

When a person with ASD is in a high-stress situation that feels unpredictable, they may not be able to cope until they regain a sense of control and calmness. Reassure them you can help and that support is available to handle the situation. Speak with a calm voice. Encourage them to breathe and step away from the situation to regroup. Time, space, and reassurance can help to de-escalate the situation.

10.  Many individuals with ASD, including high functioning individuals may lack motor skills, balance, and upper trunk strength.

It is possible that although someone is high functioning and has accomplished many skills, motor skills may be significantly lacking. Motor skills necessary to ride a bike, catch a ball, hike or play basketball may be difficult due to poorly controlled balance and muscle control, a common characteristic of ASD. The lack of motor control may put them at risk of injury or suffocation, especially if the individual needs restrained.

Learn more about de-escalation techniques and how to prevent a full-blown crisis. Schedule time with Dr. Musarra to come speak with your group or school. Or, schedule time to attend her first responder training, (LE, FIRE, EMS), titled “Dealing with Autism and Neurodevelopmental Challenges in Public Safety” with Dr. Nancy Musarra today. 

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