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Wednesday 6 December 2023 Dublin: 5°C
John Grant Cork City Hall turns blue for autism.

Here are ten things you can do for people with autism that won't cost you a penny

“Having autism defines no one.”

HAPPY WORLD AUTISM Awareness Month, where the world turns blue, events are held and articles written with the aim of increasing autism awareness.

In Ireland in recent years we have certainly become more “aware” of autism in the sense that it is a word which we hear a lot more, more people are diagnosed with the condition and we are more likely to know someone who has a diagnosis of autism.

Awareness is a really important first step to building an inclusive society however it’s important to remember that awareness and understanding are two very different things. I am aware that Mandarin is a language, I do not understand it and as a result I find it hard to interact with those who only speak that language.

The same is true of autism – so many people are aware it exists but many have no idea how to communicate with or include someone with autism or find it hard to empathise with what it is like to live with the condition.

I maintain that most people would want to include a person with autism but I also know, from my work and my own personal experiences, many people are not even aware when they are interacting with someone with autism because it is an invisible condition and so it is easy to just label a person as “weird” or ‘“strange” when in actual fact that person is trying their very best to cope socially and is different, not less.

People with autism are born with disabilities in that, having autism makes things like communication, interaction, imagination and processing the world around you more difficult. However because society do not understand or empathise with people with autism, many great disabilities are thrust on those with the condition – exclusion in school, the workplace and the community.

This World autism Awareness week you can make a difference. Below are just ten very simple changes you can make, for free and with great ease, which will make life in your community much easier for people with autism.

The 1 in 100 people in Ireland who have autism, and their families, make changes to their behaviour everyday just to fit into the world – consider making a small change in your behaviour to enable as opposed to disabling a person with the condition.

Picture 2 Cork City Hall John Grant Cork City Hall turns blue for autism. John Grant

1) Be clear, easy to understand and patient

Many people with Autism find it difficult to communicate with other people. This can present in a variety of formats – some people with autism are non-verbal or non-speaking and so rely on different forms of communication such as the use of visuals to communicate. Other people with autism are verbal but find it hard to articulate how they feel or when they are worried about something or may take a little bit longer to interpret what you are saying to them. Many people with Autism have a very literal use of language which means that humour, sarcasm or figures of speech can be confusing.

If you come across a person with autism who finds communication difficult you should try and use clear language, saying exactly what you mean and allowing the person sufficient time to respond, in others words don’t overwhelm the person with information or questions all at once. It is also an idea to consider how you can use images or written instructions if a person finds it easier to communicate that way.

Many people with autism feel they cannot participate in conversation because people simply do not know how to communicate with them or do not allow the person time to respond – make the effort and remember just because a person does not speak it does not mean they don’t have something to say.

2) Reach out to those with the condition

There is often a perception that people with autism just want to be on their own and don’t want to socialise. While some people with autism may prefer their own company many others would like to socialise in a way that worked for them but just don’t know where to start or, as was the case when I was a teenager, would become very socially anxious.

A person with autism may not know how to start a conversation or how to behave when socialising but they may love to participate. Never force a person with autism to socialise but always invite the person and even if they usually decline your invite keep offering it – so the person knows they are welcome and can participate if they wish.

People with autism often find it easier to socialise in a structured way doing something they like so find out what a person is interested in and build a social opportunity around that. Remember just because a person with autism doesn’t want to socialise at a certain time it doesn’t mean they don’t want to socialise at all.

3) Be SENSEible

Those of us with autism process our sensory environment differently. Some people with autism are hypo-sensitive to their surroundings and so need high intensity inputs such as loud noises or strong tastes while others are very sensitive to their surroundings and can become very overwhelmed.

Think of nails down a blackboard but only you can hear it – it’s not something you don’t like it’s something you can’t bear. Be mindful that the sensory environment is an accessibility issue for people with autism and so consider the environment of a social situation and how it could be made comfortable for a particular person who has autism as the sensory needs and challenges tend to vary from person to person.

4) Provide reassurances

People with autism often find change very difficult as change means the unknown and people with autism find it difficult to predict what will happen in an new situation, how people will behave and how they should behave.

You can make things easier by informing people of change in advance or if you are inviting someone somewhere to give them an agenda or a visual setting out what the place looks like, who will be there and what will happen (we call these social stories).

This can greatly reduce a person with autism anxiety and make it easier for the person to participate.

Russia World Autism Awareness Day AP / Press Association Images The Dvortsovy (Palace) bridge is illuminated in blue to mark World Autism Awareness Day in St.Petersburg, Russia. AP / Press Association Images / Press Association Images

5) Be adaptable

People with autism are expected to constantly adapt to the world around us, which is kind of funny when the condition itself is one which makes change and adaptation a little harder - yet we do it everyday!

Be willing to adapt your behaviour and plans slightly to accommodate people with autism.

6) Don’t be so quick to jump to judgement

Have you ever looked at a mother in the supermarkets whose child was very distressed or was shouting or lying on the ground and “tut tutted” or how often do you call that guy in school or that girl in work “weird” because they are a little strange or socially awkward.

People with autism are constantly falling victim to such judgement because the condition is invisible. It is easy to look at someone experiencing sensory overload and see a “bold boy” or to call that person who always says the wrong thing at the wrong time “rude” but you could just be talking about someone living with autism and doing their best.

So think twice before you judge. While of course not everyone who behaves in such ways has autism but being more understanding benefits those of us with invisible conditions and a lot of others groups too.

7) See the person first

No two people with autism are the same. Having autism defines no one. It is one part of the person.

As far as possible treat every person with autism the same as you would other people and only provide support where it is asked for or where you see it is needed.

Don’t patronise as it can be very irritating and disabling for those with the condition.

8) Watch your language

We constantly use words like “retard”, “spa” or “special” as slurs or derogatory terms.

These are highly offensive and oppressive to those with disabilities including autism as it implies that being a person with a disability is negative.

Think before you speak.

World Autism Day AP / Press Association Images A purple-blue tint covers the dome of the state Capitol in Jackson, Mississippi in observance of World Autism Day. AP / Press Association Images / Press Association Images

9) Be an ally

Now that you know some steps you can take be open to telling others and sticking up for the rights of people with autism in your conversations with other people, in school, in work and in your community.

People with autism are only 1% of the population so we do need allies in society to advance our cause.

10) Don’t be afraid to ask

I find so many of the challenges people with autism face in society is because people are afraid to ask what they can do, why a person behaves as they do or what something is.

This World Autism Awareness Month remember that asking implies your willingness to learn. While it might be overwhelming to ask an individual such a personal question if you have any burning questions why not tweet us at #AskAsIAm and we will do our best to answer all sincere questions.

Adam Harris is the 21-year-old founder and CEO of Adam founded based on his experiences as a young person living with Asperger’s Syndrome.

Column: Autism certainly makes life harder – but diversity also makes societies flourish

Column: I have Asperger’s and I like being “different”

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