Wednesday, 12 Sep 2018
How to Support Someone with Autism
By Dr Becky Spelman
There’s a saying within the care industry, ‘if you’ve met someone with autism, then you’ve met one person with autism.’ There is no textbook example you can point to; no exact process to provide support. But there are some general strategies that can help.
The starting point is assessing the needs of the individual, what is their capacity?
Six factors define where someone falls on the autism spectrum, with each having opposing ends of the scale. These are:
- Measured Intelligence – (The ability to think freely and form opinions.)
- Social Interaction – (Making eye contact, enjoying interacting with others, etc.)
- Communication – (The correct and appropriate use of words to communicate.)
- Behaviours – (Coping strategies, ticks, repetitive or challenging behaviours.)
- Sensory – (Response to touch, smell, sound and taste positively or negatively.)
- Motor skills – (Gross motor: walking, fine motor: Ability to manipulate with the hands.)
This puts understanding the needs of the individual front and centre. It is referred to as taking a person-centred approach. People with autism can be just as witty, charming, passionate and diverse as the rest of us, so why should they be treated any differently?
Here are some things to consider when providing support:
Be a Good Listener – Take in exactly what the person is saying and respond in a way that makes them feel listened to and valued. Talking is the primary way in which we get our needs met. So being attentive is of great importance, as you are often cast in the role of decision maker. It is also wise not to prescribe your own preferences of what you think an individual needs as opposed to what they actually need, providing it is in their best interests.
Communication – A large portion of autistic people can only focus one thing or task at a time, so being asked several questions in quick succession will most likely cause confusion and/or agitation. Slow things down; speak in clear, concise sentences, avoiding the use of metaphor or wordplay. Autistic people can take things very literally, so if you say it’s raining cat and dogs outside, they might be inclined to look out the window.
Processing Time – This is the amount of time it takes to register a request and respond. In people with high-functioning autism, it can be almost no different to the average person on the street. On the opposite end of the spectrum however, times of up to six seconds have been recorded before a response. Be aware of a person’s capacity, and allow them enough time before repeating the question if necessary.
Allow Space – This follows on from the last point, but applies more to activities. Learning difficulties go hand in hand with autism, which means there’s always going to challenging moments. But remember, making mistakes is part of the learning process, so don’t step in straight away. Again, allow them time. The more you do for someone, the more you risk the chance of deskilling them and stunting their growth. The goal of effective support is to promote independence.
Recognising Behaviours – Being non-verbal can a significant hurdle to some, and if an individual isn’t understood or able to communicate properly, they might exhibit ‘challenging behaviours,’ as a way of getting their needs met. There is a story of one such woman in residential care that always had to know who was on shift that day. Staff had pictures of themselves they would pin to a corkboard to show who was present. However, one day this stopped, and the woman began setting off the fire alarm, constantly. This was initially viewed as being disruptive, but in reality, she knew this would get everyone outside so she could see who was in the house – meeting her need. Once it was realised, and corkboard put back up, the ‘behaviour’ stopped.
Routine – This carries over from the last point, and as illustrated, can be of incredible importance to many sufferers. Everyone will have their own way of doing things. But the ability to be able to carry out daily routines should not be underestimated, and can often be a make or break point for the mental health of an individual. Routine provides comfort and security, so if a part of the chain is broken, it is not uncommon for there to be non-engagement until that part of the process is complete before being able to move on.
Acknowledgment – In some cases, when supporting someone who may be non-verbal or have limited capacity, there can be a tendency to talk about the person as if they are not there. While this might be unavoidable in certain situations, it should not be allowed to become the norm. None of us would like to be in this position ourselves, so we should afford those with autism the same respect, regardless of their capacity to communicate and/or comprehend.
**If you’re having difficulties in any aspect of supporting a friend or loved one with autism, allowing yourself the freedom to talk about your challenges can be an enormous benefit in finding clarity.
WHO CAN I SPEAK TO FURTHER ABOUT THE ISSUES IN THIS ARTICLE?
For help with the issues discussed in this article speak to one of our therapists here at Private Therapy Clinic for a free initial chat or to make an appointment.