This is a post about one single person with autism, Martin, my kid. The hints I provide can only guide you in creating a relationship with him. But they can, perhaps, also get you thinking about how to work on making closer relationships with other autistic people you might know. So here goes:
1. Be willing to accept rejection.
Because Martin is verbal, you can ask him if he wants to do something with you. He might say yes, which provides an opening for spending time together. He might say no. If he does, don’t worry. It’s not about you. He’s probably doing something else that makes him really happy. And that something else might bewilder you.
2. Be flexible.
Most kids come up with odd things to create or do. Martin takes it to a whole new level. Being friends with him means assisting him in his imagined projects. One time, Martin asked if he could shape my long hair into the beards and mustaches of every president – in order. So I sat there while Martin moved my hair around my face, making me into a Benjamin Harrison that only he could recognize. On a recent Saturday, Martin asked me to accompany him while he looked for every single flower in his wildflowers of Texas guidebook. It took forever. And we got rained on. But Martin knows he can rely on me to be flexible, which is crucial for being his friend.
3. Stay positive.
This is a hard one. Sometimes behaviors related to autism can be really frustrating. It’s completely reasonable to want to say “NO, stop doing that. It’s (insert negative assessment here).” For many people with autism, especially those who have responded to ABA therapy, negativity prompts an automatic shutdown. Positive redirection and rewards are the way to help someone like Martin feel comfortable with doing something they don’t want to do (or willing to stop doing something that is negative for themselves or others).
4. Be clear and concrete.
Some folks on the spectrum, including Martin, have trouble processing language. Abstraction, irony, and sarcasm don’t compute for them. The best way to communicate with Martin is to use clear and uncomplicated language. It’s best to focus on concrete things rather than dwell on open-ended subjects. The question that English speakers use all the time – How are you? – is not a great one for Martin. It can mean so many things. A better question might be – How is your day going? Another might be – Would you like to go for a walk or a bike ride?
5. Respond with respectful concern when things aren’t going well.
When someone with autism is having a hard time, many folks around them feel uncomfortable. They might not know what to say or do so they pretend that nothing is happening. They hope that the trouble will soon pass. But it’s easy for people with autism and those who care for them to feel other people’s discomfort. If you can show that you see what’s going on and you’re not reacting with stress, that’s a positive signal. If you offer help or just some moral support, your small actions go a long way. Martin can usually answer if someone asks him – Do you need help?
6. Enjoy yourself.
Martin can and will take you places you never might have imagined. He’ll make you draw maps of ancient Israel, construct Lego figurines of the first ladies, and watch videos of contraptions made of dominos. He’s really interesting and he’ll let you accompany him on his flights of fancy if you’re willing to play by his rules.