The terms "neurodivergent" and "neurotypical" have only come into popular usage in recent years and it's important that we recognise the differences between the two. Autism is a form of neurodivergence, which means that people that fall on the spectrum do not think or behave in the "typical" sense. This doesn't mean that they are ill or disabled, but it does require that neurotypical people make the effort in understanding them.

Photo Credit: Pixabay

Photo Credit: Pixabay

Autistic people count for 1.1% of the population, so if you're aware of someone in your life who is among this neurodivergent few, here are seven ways you can be helpful to them.

1. Don't tell them to look at you

Most of us find it a natural thing to look at whoever we're talking to, but making eye contact isn't easy for people on the autistic spectrum. Just because someone is looking at their feet instead of at you doesn't mean they're not listening. In fact, it's likely that they are trying very hard to listen and are avoiding visual stimulation so they can actually concentrate on the conversation.

2. Don't tell them to stop fidgeting

Many of us are tempted to drum our fingers, tap our feet and bite our nails when we're feeling impatient or nervous, but for autistic people it goes beyond that. Stimming, or self-stimulating behaviour, is a kind of repetitive behaviour that includes anything from rocking to flicking to humming; anything that helps the person deal with stressful situations. It may look odd to other people, but if it's not harming anyone or causing a disruption, it can actually be extremely beneficial.

3. Indulge their obsessions

It's common for people on the autism spectrum to have a "thing"; that is, a profound preoccupation with a particular subject be it ancient history, Lord of the Rings, football or beetles. They'll often be vastly knowledgeable about it, and have the remarkable ability to weave it into almost any conversation. It's often very hard for autistic people to relate to the world around them, so having a proficiency for something is an important part of building confidence and finding purpose. The best thing you can do is show an interest, and don't roll your eyes when they bring their passion up in conversation no matter how boring you might find it.

4. Tell them when they upset you

Many autistic people find social interaction difficult. Understanding emotions - both other people's and their own - does not always come easy and they may often come across as rude, self-centred and uninterested in what anybody else has to say. It is important that you, as a neurotypical person, understand that your autistic friend is not trying to hurt your feelings, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't speak up when they do - it's all part of the learning process.

What you mustn't do is hint at your grievance using body language, facial expression or sarcasm as this may go unnoticed and cause more agitation on your part. It may also be confusing and cause them to become annoyed at you. The best thing you can do is politely and clearly state that they have upset you and explain what it was that they said. You will often find that they are more than willing to apologise because they've been down this road before.

5. Don't hug them without asking

This goes for anyone, to be honest, it's not just autistic people who find physical contact difficult to manage. Autism can cause people to be extremely sensitive to touch, so never go in for a suprise hug. Questions like "Can I hug you?" and "Can I shake your hand?" should become a normal part of your social interaction, and don't get offended if you are occasionally refused. Waving is fine too.

6. Be mindful of your surroundings

It's not uncommon for someone with autism to find it difficult to cope in places where there are crowds, lots of bright lights and lots of noise. It can trigger something called sensory overload so if you know your friend struggles, try and avoid going to places that may cause it, or else be sure to warn them if you are taking them somewhere they haven't been before and you think it may become stressful. If they start to look uncomfortable, immediately steer them to more neutral surroundings if possible, or have a distraction at hand such as music or a topic of conversation.

7. Have patience

One thing that a lot of autistic people find helps them deal with everyday life is routine. They may enjoy a specific way of doing things and find it extremely hard to adapt or change when circumstances call for it. They may also be very meticulous when it comes to planning journeys or daily tasks, so the best thing you can do is allow them to work to their routine as much as possible. It doesn't matter whether or not you know a more efficient way of doing things; there's no harm in raising it with them but remember that their routine is about their comfort as much as it is about effectiveness. Some things that are easy for you may be hard for them, so always be patient.

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