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Myth: Autistic People Lack Empathy

Katherine Johnson. M.S., BCBA
Senior Director of Partnerships, LEARN Behavioral

Note: This article is about a form of ableism that affects one part of the autistic community: autistic people who are proficient verbal communicators. Those who communicate with AAC devices, typing, sign, or who don’t yet have the communication skills to engage with the wider world face other forms of ableism and discrimination not described in this article. 

The Double Empathy Problem

Remember the game “telephone”? One person whispers a message to another, that person whispers to the next, and on down the line until the last person announces the message so everyone can laugh at how many times the original sentence has been distorted. 

Using a variation of this exercise, a study looked at how a message fared if the string of people in the telephone line were all autistic, all neurotypical, or a mix of both. It turns out that the rate at which the message degraded among the verbal autistic people was no greater than that of the neurotypical people.  It was only when the message was sent through a mix of autistic and neurotypical people that the meaning deteriorated significantly faster. 

What does this tell us? 

If effective social communication was objectively deficient (not just different) in verbal autistic people, we would expect that the all-autistic string of people would produce the worst decline in messages in the study; that wasn’t the finding. Instead, the autistic people received and passed along messages amongst themselves just as well as the neurotypical people. The faulty communication resulted not from the autistic participants but from the mismatch between autistic and neurotypical communication.  

This small study illustrates a theory by Dr. Damian Milton that he calls the “double empathy problem.” Challenging the assumption that neurotypical people have social skills that autistic people simply lack, he posits that the disconnects between autistic and non-autistic people are not the result of a one-sided skill deficit; they are instead a mismatch of neurotypes.

Reframing

This is a dramatic reframing of the common belief about these communication breakdowns, which placed the fault squarely on the social skill profile of the autistic folks. The “empathy” part of the theory’s name refers to the widely-held idea that autistic people lack empathy, when the theory would suggest that autistic empathy is simply expressed differently. Slowly but surely, researchers are beginning to look at that other side of the coin: how the social skill profiles of neurotypical people might also undermine relationships.   

For years, research has demonstrated that autistic people have difficulty interpreting facial expressions; a 2016 study finally looked at the reverse. They asked neurotypical people to interpret facial expressions of autistic folks – and they were unable to do it. The results of a series of studies in 2017 suggest that one reason people of different neurotypes have difficulty connecting is because neurotypical people form negative first impressions of autistic people (based upon appearance, not conversational skills), and subsequently avoid them. This indicates that some of the social isolation that autistic people face is due to ableism and discrimination.  

Missing Out

The difficulties autistic and non-autistic people have connecting negatively impact both sides. Since autistic people are in the minority, disconnection from the neurotypical portion of their community can increase their feelings of loneliness and isolation. For its part, the neurotypical world is missing out on the unique, often innovative, autistic perspective. 

Autistic people who have had huge cultural impacts on our society (environmental activist Greta Thunberg, actor Dan Akroyd, and Pokemon creator Santoshi Tajiri, to name a few) have had success in spite of a society that is largely unsupportive of and, at times, openly hostile to, the social profile of autistic folks. Imagine what brilliance we miss out on when autistic people are looked over, avoided, not hired, etc.  

Even those who are not destined to become one of the famous few mentioned above have a perspective that can deeply impact those around them. Autistic people see the world from different angles, which can be an advantage in everyday problem-solving. They generally have a strong sense of justice, an unwillingness to be cowed by hierarchy, and a drive for honesty, sincerity, and specificity, all beneficial qualities in social relationships and the workplace.

Expanding Neurotypical Empathy

The solution to the separation between people of different neurotypes has largely been to teach autistic people how to understand the rest of the world better. But by considering the double-empathy problem, we can see that this is only part of the issue. The other part is that non-autistic people also have skill deficits: interpreting and interacting with autistic people. 

Just as history is written by the winners, social norms are written by the majority. If we want to work toward a future where people of all neurotypes better understand one another, we must listen to the experiences of the minority. It’s important to recognize that neurotypical “social norms” exist because they’re most common, not because they are inherently superior. These dominant “social norms” directly result from how neurotypical people think, behave, and process the world. 

“Empathy” is about understanding another person’s experience. Ironically, to succeed in our society, autistic people must display empathy nearly constantly: decoding others’ unwritten rules and learning to approach the world in a way that works for others. To bridge the divide, nurture the gifts of the autistic people in our society, and for everyone to benefit from the valuable perspectives of the neurodivergent, those with neurotypical brains must follow this example. By challenging themselves to work toward understanding and adapting to the way autistic people see and experience the world, neurotypical folks can open themselves up to new friends with an intense devotion to honesty. Employers will find innovative autistic employees with rare specializations and a knack for accuracy. And society will benefit from recognizing and celebrating the valuable and previously underappreciated gifts of the autistic mind. 

Damian E.M. Milton (2012) On the ontological status of autism: the ‘double empathy problem’, Disability & Society, 27:6, 883-887, DOI: 10.1080/09687599.2012.710008

Sheppard, E., Pillai, D., Wong, G.TL. et al. How Easy is it to Read the Minds of People with Autism Spectrum Disorder?. J Autism Dev Disord 46, 1247–1254 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10803-015-2662-8

Sasson, N., Faso, D., Nugent, J. et al. Neurotypical Peers are Less Willing to Interact with Those with Autism based on Thin Slice Judgments. Sci Rep 7, 40700 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1038/srep40700

7 Tips for Snow Day Fun

By Karen Callahan

While no one can argue with the fun of traditional activities, such as building snowmen or snow angels, keeping your kiddo occupied throughout an entire snow day while confined to your house might require a few more tricks up your sleeve.

Consider the unique opportunities the snow can provide for you and your kiddo to explore different language concepts, social skills, academic tasks, and leisure activities. Think about bringing what winter has to offer indoors, where it is warm, for a unique way to learn and play together.

To get started, grab a few safe bowls (think plastic Tupperware), some pots, a muffin tin, and a few spoons of different sizes. Fill one bowl with cold water and another with hot water. Throw a big beach towel on the floor and grab some of that white, powdery stuff! Here are seven tips for snow day fun.

  1. Let your child explore, figure out what they like about the activity, and add to what they find fun. If they’re watching you and waiting for what you will do next, you’ve got it right!

  2. In the beginning, don’t demand your child’s attention. Show them some fun ways to play with the snow and “kitchen stuff” and talk about what is happening. “Wow, you smashed the snow!” “Did you see it melt in the hot water?” “You got more snow!” “Stir, stir, stir, good job stirring!”

  3. Language Concepts: Once you’ve got the activity going, use the snow to start talking about fun, related language concepts like hot/cold, wet/dry, and melting/frozen.

  4. Social Skills: Take turns using the spoons, stirring, and playing. Encourage and model social skills by commenting about the activity and what you or your child enjoy. “Watch it melt!” “Wow, that is cold!” “I like playing in the snow!”

  5. Academic Tasks: Discuss weather, precipitation, seasons, and states of matter (solid, liquid, gas). Use your muffin tin and practice counting as you fill each cup.

  6. Leisure Skills: Feel free to step away from the activity and let your child dig in on their own. Sustaining a play activity and incorporating newly learned play skills modeled by an adult play a crucial role in learning.

  7. Be sure to set boundaries about where the snow must stay. We suggest prompting all snow activity back to the area of the beach towel.

Most importantly, have fun and enjoy this new experience!

8 Tips for Planning for a Successful Holiday for Your Autistic Child

The holidays are an exciting time as we share traditions, spend time with family, and navigate the different gatherings and celebrations. Holiday spirit can also bring holiday stress. We want to help you and your family have the most successful (and least stressful) season by offering our best practices and tips.

BEFORE THE HOLIDAYS

Start with Expectations

Having a positive and realistic mindset about what you want to create can make a big difference. What could go right this season? Keep an optimistic view of the possibilities for special moments you want to share. A winning holiday doesn’t have to mean extravagant plans. Consider what would be ideal, be prepared to accept when flexibility is needed, and look for the wins along the way.

Consider Comfort and Safety Needs

When visiting events or other homes, bring items you know will bring comfort for your child—things like earplugs (or headphones), fidgets, and soft clothes. When traveling, ask for needed accommodations from your airline and hotel. Make sure you are aware of possible water nearby and review crisis plans with loved ones.

Practice Before Events

Now is a great time to discuss upcoming changes to schedules and routines. Involve your child in the process whenever possible. Playing memory games with photos of those you will see this holiday season allows your child to identify matching names and faces. Establish a phrase or code word with your child to practice using when they need to take a break from events to calm down and relax.

DURING THE HOLIDAYS

Maintain Routines

During the holidays, change is inevitable but find ways to create or maintain routines for your child. What are things you can build into every day? Perhaps it’s something you do together each morning, afternoon, and evening (regardless of location). Utilizing visual supports like calendars and independent activity schedules can be helpful too.

Build in Fun!

Whether days are filled with errands or time at home, consider letting your child choose a couple of activities each morning for the day ahead. Here are some suggestions that might work for your family:

  • Bake something together
  • Do holiday arts and crafts
  • Take a drive to see holiday lights in your neighborhood, zoo, or garden
  • Help with decorations or gift wrapping
  • Sing along with holiday music

Consider Sensory Needs

Holiday meals can be tricky for some. Plan ahead for alternative foods that you know your child will eat. As we mentioned earlier, being mindful of dressing in (or packing extra) comfortable clothing can be helpful. Preferred items, such as toys or other objects that help promote calm for your child, are a good idea too. Consider making a sensory box that includes things to stimulate your child’s touch/sight/sound/taste/smell. Finally, establish a quiet “break space” that your child can utilize when needed.

WRAPPING UP THE HOLIDAYS

Plan for Rest and Recovery

After each scheduled big event or outing, try to allow time for a quiet evening that follows. Start a list or document on your computer of things that went well that you want to repeat and ideas about what would make it easier next time.

Transition Back to School

Packing holiday decorations and unpacking clothes can be helpful signals to your child that things are moving back to the normal routine. Other visual cues like a countdown calendar for back to school can help prepare them. Show them when school starts and have them mark off the days. Leave extra time the first morning back to school so you can have a nice breakfast and move with ease into the day. If possible, organize a nice, calm activity after school and focus on what went well at the end of the day.

LEARN’s Kerry Hoops Uses Assent-Based Practice to Make COVID-19 Vaccination Comfortable for Kids with Autism

By: Katherine Johnson, M.S., BCBA

Senior Director of Partnerships, LEARN Behavioral

Vaccination visits can be terrifying for an autistic child – a new environment, unfamiliar sounds and smells, being touched by a stranger, and all of this culminating in a painful poke. Anxiety and unwillingness to sit for a vaccine shot can lead to parents and medical professionals winding up with a difficult decision: hold the child down against their will or forego the vaccine. At LEARN, we care about our clients’ health and the experience they have when receiving healthcare.

Recently, the Wisconsin Early Autism Project (WEAP, a LEARN organization) partnered with the Autism Society of Greater Wisconsin in a series of vaccine clinics. These events were carefully designed to provide families with autistic children a positive experience while receiving their COVID-19 vaccines.    

The clinics were held in a local children’s museum, and a pair of seasoned clinicians teamed up with each child, who had reviewed a vaccination social story before coming. Parents answered a questionnaire about their child’s experience with shots and specific interests in advance; clinicians used this information to build rapport with the child, make them comfortable, and provide distraction. Choice was built into the entire experience: children got to select toys, the type of bandage they received, and the body part where they would receive the shot. Clinicians also provided non-invasive devices to mitigate injection pain, like the Buzzy pain blocker, and shot blockers. The most intriguing part? Clinicians waited until the child indicated they were ready before giving them the vaccination.

The result was phenomenal: dozens of autistic children receiving their COVID-19 vaccine without a tear. Kerry Hoops, our Clinical Director at WEAP, said that one experience in particular stood out to her: a boy who was terrified that the shot would hurt, asking about it repeatedly. After assuring him they would not let the shot be a surprise, they spent some time doing one of his favorite activities: having races around the museum. They gave him the opportunity to watch his mother get the vaccine, and then took him to a sensory room in the facility where they watched wrestling (WWE) together. Getting him comfortable was a process that took nearly an hour, but the end result was a child who received his vaccine willingly, and left having had a positive experience.  “The coolest thing is seeing the parents’ responses,” said Hoops. “They were so happy because they were not expecting the vaccination experience to go as well as it did.”

The procedures Hoops and our other clinicians at LEARN used are all evidence-based practices commonly used in applied behavior analysis (ABA) called “antecedent interventions.” Frequently, interfering behaviors (like screaming or bolting from a doctor) occur because the child is trying to escape from something uncomfortable or scary. Antecedent interventions are meant to create an environment that the child doesn’t want to escape from. “We’re trying to create a positive experience so when they go in for their next vaccine, they’re not going to be afraid,” says Hoops.  

The most groundbreaking component of these vaccine clinics was it was not the medical professional who decided when it was time for the shot, nor was it the parent. It was the child. In addition to using antecedent interventions, our WEAP clinicians also had the medical professionals hold off on the procedure itself until the child had indicated they were willing to receive the vaccine – something known as “gaining assent.”  

Assent, having a pediatric patient agree to treatment, is a practice that has been required for medical research since 1977, citing the need to respect children as individuals. Since then, some practitioners have extended assent procedures to their regular pediatric practice, asking for the child’s permission before they listen to their heart, for instance. The new BACB ethics code includes a provision for “gaining assent when applicable,” and proponents argue that Assent-Based ABA prevents difficult behavior and teaches children critical self-advocacy skills. The ability to determine what is and is not comfortable and acceptable for oneself is particularly important for children who struggle to use language, or who are at higher risk of being misunderstood because they are autistic. At LEARN, Assent-Based Programming is one part of our overall Person-Centered ABA Initiative. 

Although Assent-Based practice doesn’t guarantee that every child will eventually agree to the procedure (2 children of the 73 children in the clinic did not assent to the vaccine), it was overwhelmingly successful. The impact was evident in the enthusiastic responses from parents afterward. One parent wrote, “Thank you for the BEST vaccination experience ever! Our family was overjoyed to have been part of this clinic.” 

LEARN is proud to announce that WEAP and ASGW are planning on expanding their vaccine clinics to regular children’s vaccines in the coming year. For more information, check out the ASGW’s website.

Kerry Hoops, MA, BCBA, is the clinical director for Wisconsin Early Autism Project’s Green Bay region. Kerry began her career helping children with autism over 20 years ago when she was attending UWGB for her bachelor’s in psychology and human development. She fell in love with the job and chose to work in the field of autism as her career. Kerry furthered her education at the Florida Institute of Technology and Ball State University with a master’s in applied behavior analysis and became a board certified behavior analyst (BCBA). She loves helping children and families in Wisconsin and internationally in Malaysia. Kerry also works at the Greater Green Bay YMCA for the DREAM program, focusing on events for socialization for adults with special needs. She has been on the board of directors for the Autism Society of Greater Wisconsin since 2014 and is the acting president.

LEARN more about LEARN’s Person-Centered ABA Initiative. And, to stay connected, join our newsletter.

Five Tips for Selecting the Best Holiday Gifts for Kids with Autism

Buying the perfect gift for kids and other loved ones can be challenging, and this can also be true when buying gifts for kids with autism. To help make your gift-giving easier, here are a few helpful tips to keep in mind when purchasing gifts for autistic children.

Focus on what brings the person joy.

Research shows that incorporating interests and preferences into the learning and play environment of kids with autism can increase positive behaviors and aid in skill acquisition (1). With that said, we can capitalize on what someone already likes. For example, if a child likes dogs, shop for games, activities, or toys that are dog-related. If a child enjoys swimming, activities that involve water play may be a hit (e.g., water tables, sprinkler toys, water beads, grow capsules). Alternatively, if a child is sensitive to loud noises, a toy fire truck with a siren may not be appropriate. Ask friends and family of the person for whom you are buying the gift what that person generally likes and/or dislikes.

Focus on the person’s strengths and abilities.

Many toys come with age recommendations, and while these recommendations are helpful, they might not always lead you to the perfect gift. A good rule of thumb when purchasing a gift is to consider the age and the development of the person for whom you are buying a gift. For example, the game “Apples to Apples” would not be developmentally appropriate for a non-verbal teen, even if it is an age-appropriate game. When looking for the right gift, focus on the person’s strengths. For instance, if the non-verbal teen mentioned above is great at drawing, then a sketch pad or an adult coloring book could be a more appropriate gift. If you are unsure about the child or teen’s strengths, ask a friend or family member of the person for whom you are buying the gift about their specialty areas and abilities.

Note: Be sensitive to how family and friends of a child and teen with autism may feel when being asked questions about the skills of their loved one. When asking questions, always frame them from the perspective of accomplishment (e.g., what skills have they mastered) and not deficit (e.g., in what areas are they delayed) to be supportive and respectful of their growth and development.

Be mindful of behavior triggers and safety risks.

Some children with autism engage in behaviors that put them or their loved ones at risk of harm. For example, if a child engages in pica (e.g., eating nonfood items), gifts containing small objects may pose as a choking hazard. Another example is if a child engages in aggression towards others, gifts with violent content may not be appropriate, as additional exposure to violence may interfere with their goals. Alternatively, a sensory-seeking child may benefit from gifts that allow them to stim. For example, if a child rocks back and forth, a swing may be a great way to meet their sensory needs. Additionally, certain objects can elicit sensory sensitivities which can trigger behaviors in some children and teens with autism (e.g., loud noises, highly preferred items, phobias, etc.). Ask friends and family of the person you are buying the gift for if there are any behaviors that possess a safety risk that need to be considered before purchasing a gift.

Focus on toys that encourage interaction with others.

Social deficits are a defining characteristic of autism. When gift-giving, try to purchase gifts that encourage social interaction. While almost any toy or game can be turned into a group play, certain activities may be more conducive to social interactions than others. For example, instead of buying a computer game, consider purchasing “Bop It,” which is an electronic interactive game that can be played among a group of friends or family.

Focus on finding new things they will love.

Children and teens with autism sometimes have restricted or limited interests (e.g., only talking about trucks or only playing with dinosaurs). To help build upon their current interests to introduce them to a wider range of activities, try finding new activities similar to their current interests. For example, if a child’s favorite activity is playing with “Play-Doh,” kinetic sand or slime may be an appropriate gift to help expand their interest due to its similarity in form of play. Ultimately, gifts that will provide new experiences may act as potential new reinforcers (e.g., stimuli that increase behaviors) and could significantly enrich the child or teen’s learning environment.

Resources

Increasing Task Engagement Using Preference or Choice-Making
Some Behavioral and Methodological Factors Affecting Their Efficacy as Classroom Interventions

For more holiday tips, check out Reducing Holiday Stress for Families of Children with Autism and Preparing for Holiday Meals.

Structural Racism and its Impact on ABA: Disparities in Diagnosis and Treatment

LEARN is committed to fostering a culture that embraces what makes us each unique—be it race, ethnicity, gender/gender identity, sexual orientation, religion, national origin, disabilities/abilities, or socioeconomic background. LEARN aims to acknowledge the lived experiences and diversity of perspectives of our staff and welcomes our teammates to share their stories to help foster conversations about diversity, equity, and inclusion in our communities.

By: Jasmine White, M.S., BCBA, Behavioral Concepts (BCI)

Today, the topics of diversity, equity, inclusion, and equality are at the forefront of many organizations. The long-standing impact of structural racism and its influence on society can no longer be disregarded. People of all creeds are speaking out against injustices and the need to promote inclusion. The dialogues on disparities have led me to reflect on the field of applied behavior analysis (ABA) and the community which it serves. To what extent has structural racism impacted ABA as a practice? Are ABA practitioners able to identify biases within the field? What is the impact on the provision of services? How does it influence diagnosis? The literature on structural racism has shown that even the most well-intended person can possess biases, we are not immune. Therefore, it is our time as a community to gain an understanding of how structural racism has affected the field of ABA.  

Here at LEARN, it is our goal to contribute to a brighter future for all, which means bringing to light sensitive topics that are impacting the communities we serve. While this may be an uncomfortable conversation, it is needed for the development of cultural humility in ABA practice. LEARN’s focus is twofold, call attention to and create a constructive conversation around disparities in diagnosis and treatment related to diversity, equity, and inclusion. As an organization that serves a diverse population, it is our responsibility to bring attention to the disparities experienced by those we serve and to be a part of the solution towards lasting change. 

Ethnicity is known as belonging to a specific racial, national, or cultural group and observance of that group’s customs, beliefs, and or language. Depending on ethnicity, one may have a life exposed to more inequalities. For racial and ethnic minorities in the United States, these inequalities include health disparities, such as higher rates of chronic disease, lower life expectancy, and decreased quality of life compared to the rates among non-ethnic minorities.

Ethnicity also has a direct impact on how early autism is identified, evaluated, and diagnosed. Research shows that not only do Black and Latino children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) receive their diagnosis and start intervention at an older age than White children with ASD, but they also less frequently receive evidence-based interventions. For Black and Latino families, this directly impacts service opportunities, outcomes, and quality of life. According to the Center for Disease Control, studies have shown that implicit bias, lack of access to healthcare services, and non-English primary language are potential barriers to the identification of children with ASD. The research established that Black and Latino children receiving ABA services were more likely to score lower on caregiver reports of health care quality than their White counterparts, including areas of access to care, referral frequency, number of service hours, and proportion of unmet service needs.  

As a community, we must investigate ways to expand access and resources to those who so desperately need services. Identify areas of structural racism and work to reduce and eliminate them from ABA practice. Train our practitioners to identify and bracket implicit biases. Find communication methods so that all families can have a voice regardless of the primary language spoken. Explore ways to have open and honest networks of communication so that we can continue to have conversations that evoke change. Here at LEARN, we hope to be a part of the solution to these disparities so that we may create an environment where there is equity in access for those we serve.  

Discover more about LEARN Behavioral’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion initiatives. Let us find ways to work together to increase awareness and improve access to the communities we serve. Together, we can achieve more.

LEARN pledges to create a community centered around trust, respect, tolerance, and empathy. Read more about LEARN’s DEI journey in our 2021-22 DEI Annual Report and find out how we are investing in our clinicians’ cultural competence and increasing the diversity of our clinical team. Together, we’re better.

Jasmine is a BCBA and has worked with BCI for four years. She recently graduated Magna Cum Laude with a Master of Science in ABA from Bay Path University in Longmeadow, Massachusetts. Jasmine is currently conducting her thesis on Implicit Bias in ABA and is looking forward to expanding multiculturalism research in the field.  

Allyship Tips for Neurotypical Friends of the Autistic Community

By Katherine Johnson. M.S., BCBA

Senior Director of Partnerships, LEARN Behavioral

Are you working to become a better ally to the autistic and neurodivergent folks in your community? The surest way to be an effective ally is to reach out to autistic/neurodivergent people to ask how they would like your allyship. If you’re preparing for this type of conversation, here are some points to consider.

1. Listen to the voices of autistic and neurodivergent people and their caregivers.

These last few years of lockdowns have given rise to a surge in humans connecting over the internet and taking time out to hear one another’s stories. Through social media, many verbal autistic people are sharing their experiences and more and more people are listening. This is the first place to begin when learning to be an ally. 

Also critical in understanding the autistic experience is listening to the stories of caregivers of those who aren’t able to communicate as they offer a unique perspective and are often deeply in need of compassionate and understanding allies.   

2. Throw out your stereotypes

There are autistic people who love to chat, and there are autistic people who struggle to communicate their most pressing needs. Some prefer to be left alone, while others want to spend all of their free time being social. There are people on the spectrum who have intellectual disabilities and those on the spectrum who have a genius IQ. Don’t assume that one autistic person is like another; just like all of the other humans on this planet, autistic folks are individuals.        

3. Sympathy is not empathy

On the topic of respect, remember this: you can feel for someone without feeling sorry for them. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that because someone is different from you, they are inferior or their life must be less fulfilling. Pity assumes inferiority, which is insulting and demeaning. True allies assume competence, recognize their common humanity, and seek to build trust and understanding with their neurodivergent friends and neighbors.   

4. If you want to know how they feel – ask

The communication differences between autistic and non-autistic folks remind us of a universal human truth: you don’t really know how anybody feels unless they tell you. Sure, we all try to read each other’s facial expressions and tones of voices, but in a world where our brains work differently, this is an imperfect system! A neurotypical friend of mine recently made this mistake. An autistic teen had been pacing, breathing heavily, and talking under his breath. My friend assumed that the teen was in crisis, but when I simply asked how he was doing, it turned out that he wasn’t even mildly upset – just lost in thought.  

On the other side of the coin, if you want someone who is neurodiverse to know how you feel, don’t rely on heavy sighs or raised eyebrows to communicate – speak your truth. Keep in mind that some autistic people use pictures to convey their emotions, while others have alexithymia (an inability to describe their own emotions). Communicating feelings should always be within the bounds of each person’s comfort level. While being upfront about our emotions can remove the guesswork from a vulnerable connection, nobody “owes” it to you to explain their experience.     

5. Notice distress? Ask if you can help

In the days before everyone had a GPS in their pocket, I was offered directions many times, simply because I looked lost. Once, as a teenager with a broken heart, I burst into tears in public, and a grandmotherly stranger immediately threw her arms around me to comfort me. Strangers are often happy to help others…. that is, when it is obvious what kind of help they need. The communication differences between neurodivergent and neurotypical folks may mean it’s not obvious, so it’s best to ask.  

Like most of these tips, this applies to folks at all points on the spectrum – from those who are non-verbal or need substantial support to those who have the life skills to be one of your colleagues or even your boss. Autistic people of all skill levels are living in a world not designed for them, and they can become overwhelmed or distressed by things that may not be apparent to others. If you see someone “melting down,” they may appreciate the offer of help – perhaps you can get others around them to give them some space, or you can assist them in getting out of a distressing situation. I recently interviewed an autistic man who related the story of his meltdown in an airport, where he cried openly for 20 minutes before anyone offered to help. The message he wanted to convey was this: when someone is overwhelmed, just having someone offer help can be comforting.    

An autistic person by themselves in public may be able to articulate what they need with spoken language; a non-verbal autistic person may communicate by signing, using pictures, or gesturing. When the person melting down is accompanied by a caregiver, the caregiver may have more familiarity with the autistic person’s unique ways of communicating and may let you know if there’s something you can do to assist. If you have a friend on the spectrum, it’s helpful to be prepared in advance: ask your friend when the best time would be to talk about their triggers and how you can help during a meltdown.   

6. Say what you mean….and mean what you say

Our society accepts, sometimes even encourages, “white lies” to spare people’s feelings, but this can backfire with people on the spectrum. 

Consider this scenario: a new acquaintance asks if you’d like to get together, and the truth is that you don’t have space in your life for an additional friend. You might agree to exchange information and rely on the person to “get the hint” from your lackluster tone or the fact that you are always “busy.” But reliance on non-verbal messages like this puts people on the spectrum at an unfair disadvantage. Characteristically honest and literal, an autistic person may think they have actually made a friend and be far more hurt by the subsequent ghosting than they would have been had you simply been honest from the beginning. Perhaps, “You seem like a wonderful person, but I have to be honest that I am really busy, and I don’t have time to devote to a new friendship.” 

Develop the ability to deliver messages like this truthfully and with compassion. Remember that most people on the spectrum will take you at your word – and dishonesty is supremely unkind. 

Along these same lines, a note about humor: sarcasm and teasing are forms of humor that are often simply not funny to autistic people. This doesn’t mean they don’t have a sense of humor. There are many other types of humor, so if sarcasm and teasing are your main forms of joking, think about expanding your comedic range. 

7. Be sensitive to the sensory

The neurological profile of autistic people includes a sensory input system that may be quite different than your own. Most people have always taken for granted that everyone else experiences smell, sound, noise, light, and other visual input in much the same way they do. This assumption can be a huge barrier to understanding and connecting with autistic people. Not only can certain sensory stimuli be uncomfortable, it can also affect their ability to focus, communicate, or regulate their emotions. When my son walked into his kindergarten classroom and saw the walls covered from floor to ceiling with pictures and letters and words, he turned to me and said, “This room makes me dizzy!” Remember that not every neurodivergent person can put into words how these disorienting environments affect them.          

8. Get comfortable with noises and movements you don’t make

Everyone stims. When you bounce your knee because it feels good, hum tunelessly enjoying the buzz in your ears, or twirl your hair around your finger: you are stimming. Autistic people might stim in ways that might be less familiar to you – they may repeat words over and over or move their eyes in different ways or flap their arms. Stimming can block out unwanted sensory input – much as children stick their fingers in their ears and hum to block things out. Stimming can absorb energy, as it does when you’re waiting for something and you unconsciously squirm or pace. Stimming can also be calming, as it might be for you when using a stress ball or a fidget spinner. When you see someone in public moving or making noises in a way that you don’t recognize, resist any urge you may have to give a sideways glance. Perhaps, it is simply someone on the spectrum, another human who stims (as we humans do) and deserves respect (as we humans do).    

Becoming an ally to any group you’re not a member of means being willing to really listen to another perspective, to honor their experience, and integrate that into your own understanding. Clinical Director Ashley Williams reflects on her own journey:   

“I think part of being an ally is being vulnerable enough to recognize that you’ve made mistakes previously. I feel like I used to dig my heels in as a clinician because it was some perspective I clung to, and I didn’t give myself permission to rethink and admit I was wrong. I didn’t see value in changing my mind and admitting my own faults. When it comes to autism, I don’t think I became a better ally until I was comfortable saying I was wrong, and I’m open to feedback/rethinking on an ongoing, daily, basis. I always want to convey my openness to changing how I speak/act/behave to make the world a more welcoming place for those whose experiences differ from my own.”

Help Your Child Build Friendships With Kids With Autism

The following is an interview published by Chicago Parent with LEARN Behavioral Chief Clinical Officer Dr. Hanna Rue, Ph.D., BCBA-D.

By: Claire Charlton

Your child likely has the opportunity to build friendships with kids on the autism spectrum. How can you help cultivate these unique relationships?

This back-to-school season, your child is settling into a new routine alongside children of many abilities, and as they are making new friends, now is a great time to encourage them to reach out and build a friendship with a child with autism. Because autism is a spectrum disorder, your child’s classroom, cafeteria, chess club, or ballet class will likely include a child with autism, says Hanna Rue, Ph.D., BCBA-D, Chief Clinical Officer with LEARN Behavioral.

Current statistics show that 1 in 44 children has been identified with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) — for boys, the prevalence is four times higher and numbers vary from state to state, according to data from the CDC. “I’m never surprised when a parent comes to me and says their child has met a peer with typical autism characteristics in the classroom,” says Dr. Rue.

Kids with autism have strengths and challenges just like their neurotypical peers and can bring a lot of value to a friendship. “What I have found is that neurotypical kids are amazed that some kids with autism have the same special interests as they do,” Dr. Rue says. “Maybe they are passionate about zoo animals and can provide all sorts of information that neurotypical kids are impressed by.”

Each child is different and not every child mixes well with groups of peers. A child with autism is often able to look past differences or idiosyncrasies that can put off neurotypical peers, which makes them a good source of friendship for kids who struggle to fit in, Dr. Rue says.

While it may appear that kids with autism prefer to play alone, they really do enjoy companionship and sharing their interests with others. Here, Dr. Rue shares some wisdom about how to help your child build friendships with kids with autism.

How to make it happen

A child with autism may experience sensory sensitivities that neurotypical peers can empathize with. Loud noises, loud music, bright lights, even transitioning between activities can present challenges for some children.

“Sometimes a child with autism has challenges with communication and that can cause distress on either side,” Dr. Rue says. “I always tell folks if they are working with kids to develop friendships to allow for plenty of warm-up time.”

When planning a playdate, take it slow. Show your child’s new friend a quiet room in your home where they can take a break if needed, and recognize that if they take this break, it likely signals that they are overwhelmed, not disinterested. Communicate to your own child that everyone is frightened or overstimulated by something at some point and help them recognize their own fears or needs.

“I have seen some amazing pure human kindness across developmental stages,” says Dr. Rue. “When a child with autism has a meltdown, their friend can just sit and be in close proximity. They recognize independently that their friend is having a hard time. Or they assist with transitions through prompts like ‘follow me, sit at my table for lunch, hold my hand so you don’t get lost.’ Kids are pretty intuitive and can recognize that just being there and showing the way is a huge help.”

Parent encouragement can help blossoming friendships grow. Here’s what parents can do to support their children as they make and sustain friendships with kids with autism.

Talk about diversity early and often

When a parent is aware of their own child’s developmental level, they are better prepared to help them make friendships with anyone — and be inclusive on the playground and in the classroom, Dr. Rue says. This is best achieved by talking about differences on a regular basis.

“It’s important to introduce your child to diversity, especially if you live in an area where there isn’t a lot of diversity,” she says. “Read books, watch videos, and have open conversations about differences. In addition to talking about skin color, you can talk about different ways that kids communicate with each other, including the idiosyncrasies of flapping, body rocking, and squealing because this is a way of expressing joy or frustration.”

Model inclusive friendships

“We always have lots of opportunities to interact with other humans in our communities, from the playgrounds to the grocery stores,” Dr. Rue says. “This is the time to model appropriate interactions and show empathy, and then discuss it with your child.”

For younger kids, Dr. Rue is a big fan of Sesame Street’s inclusion of a character named Julia. “Julia has autism and I love for parents of neurotypical kids to watch Sesame Street with younger children and talk about Julia and how she is different. It’s a great opportunity for a shared moment of watching and talking about differences and acceptance.”

Offer a sympathetic ear to the child’s parents

Parenting a child with autism is stressful. “Research suggests that they experience more stress on a daily basis than parents of a child with a terminal illness. That’s a lot. Any small gesture, like saying hi or offering coffee or even just sitting and listening. Being an ear is very helpful,” Dr. Rue says.

Finally, have patience. Playdates can be easy but allow time for your child and their new friend to experience similar interests over a few visits. Help the other parent know that you understand and won’t give up after one meltdown or challenge.

“It’s so important to recognize that individuals with autism are all around us, doing great things,” says Dr. Rue. “We need to embrace that and learn about how to be supportive.”

For more school-related content, check out our blogs, “Five Steps to Help Your Child with Autism Make Friends” and “Back to School: Homework Tips.”

Back to School: Homework Tips

Heading back to school can bring a number of challenges for our kids, especially those with autism. Navigating new environments, teachers, therapists, and peers can each be a bit scary but full of opportunity.

One very common request we get is about supporting autistic kids with their homework. How do you get your child to do his or her homework? There are many strategies to help keep your child on task; all of them tried and true. Here are some to consider:

Make It Easier by Sticking to a Schedule

Set a schedule and stick to it. Like any other priority, if homework always occurs at the same time, and the routine becomes ingrained, your child will eventually accept the routine. This is true for teeth brushing, baths, and all of the chores children prefer to avoid. Initially, it is hard to hold the line on the schedule, but it sure pays off later.

Reinforce the Message That Homework Is Important

Set the stage and set the tone. Show your child that homework time is important and respected. Give them a special place to sit. Ask siblings to be quiet or leave the area during homework time. Check in frequently to see how they are doing and intersperse praise throughout homework tasks. Show them that you care and are invested in their homework efforts, and help them feel successful and competent.

Motivate with Kindness

Be firm but encouraging. Everyone tends to push back when they are nagged. Try to avoid nagging when you are frustrated by your child’s efforts. By observing your own behavior, you can better support theirs. You can set expectations for what the homework routine looks like, but make sure to be encouraging and motivating, too. Remind your child what you believe their strengths are and why you are proud of what they are learning.

Positive Reinforcement is Powerful

Use rewards. It is OK to reward your child for completing their homework. They are doing something difficult every day. Consider giving a reward for being successful at participating in homework time (not getting everything correct). Eventually, as homework time becomes easier, you can shift rewards to more academic goals. It does not have to be an ice cream sundae. Find out what they might like to do with you after they are done. This can be an opportunity to consider setting aside quality time that you will enjoy.

Every Opportunity for Choice Increases Compliance

Giving choices has been proven to increase motivation. What choices can they have during homework time? It is important for you to keep the time and the expectations the same. But, can they choose where to sit? Can they choose what materials to write with or write on? Can they choose what task to begin with? Also, consider letting them choose their reward as well. Give them at least three options. Empowering them in this way can be very powerful. The more control they have over the task the more motivated they will be.

Interested in more back-to-school tips? Check out our blogs, “Five Steps to Help Your Child with Autism Make Friends,” “This School Year, Build a Trusting Relationship with Your Child’s Teacher,” and “Tips for Reducing Back to School Anxiety.”


 

Tips for Reducing Back to School Anxiety

Getting ready for the new school year can be a hectic and exciting time. Transitioning from the extra playtime and novelty of summer back to the routine of the school year can be challenging. For children with autism (and their parents), all this change can feel overwhelming.

Here are some suggestions for how to help ease your child’s back-to-school anxieties:

Get a Sneak Peak
Scope out the school and classroom in advance. If your child is going into a new classroom, ask to visit it at least once before the first day of school. If transition has been a struggle in the past, consider taking as much time as your child needs to explore the classroom. Make it as much fun as possible, playing in each of the new areas.

Check Out Seat Assignments
For older children, ask the teacher if a seat assignment has been made. Do some enjoyable activities in that seat. If familiar classmates will be in the room, show where they will be sitting, too.

Rehearse New Activities
Find out from the teacher what new activities are planned. Then, prepare your child by performing, practicing, and talking about them. This rehearsal will reduce anxiety when the new activities come up in the first week of school.

Anticipate Sensory Overload
The noise and chaos of a typical classroom can sometimes be a bit much to handle. Establish a plan for what to do in this situation – perhaps there is a quiet room where your child can “take a break” for a short time.

Volunteer in the Classroom
Many teachers welcome assistance from parents. If your child’s teacher welcomes volunteers (and your schedule permits), your presence may be a source of comfort to your child during those challenging first weeks.

Going to school can pose many challenges for children with autism, as well as offer countless opportunities for building crucial social, language, and academic skills. Be positive and encouraging, and your child will be off to a great year!

Looking for more school-related tips for your child with autism? Check out our blogs, “Five Steps to Help Your Child with Autism Make Friends” and “This School Year, Build a Trusting Relationship with Your Child’s Teacher.”