How To Make Friends With Someone Who Has Autism

Expert tips on how to connect with a person on the spectrum.

For many people, autism is mysterious and frightening. “We are afraid because we don’t know how to react, so we tend just to avoid,” said Dr. Grace Iarocci, a Psychology Professor with Simon Fraser University Autism and Developmental Disorders Lab. But social isolation only makes the problem worse. 

Autism affects the way a person’s brain and body work. Someone with the disorder might have trouble speaking, make strange sounds or not talk at all. Some may flap their hands, spin in circles or sit and avoid looking at others. Each person with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is unique, and the disorder manifests in complex ways.

They’re also intelligent, passionate people who value friendship. The documentary Love, Hope & Autism tells the story of Fraser, a young autistic man from Hope, B.C. and how he connects to his family and takes steps forward in his life.

These tips can help you connect with individuals who have ASD.

  • Try to connect. Social isolation is a big risk for people with ASD. Avoidance makes that worse.
  • Keep an open mind. Just because a person struggles to connect does not mean they do not want to. Some people with autism are very social and desire friendships just like everyone else.
  • Set aside fears. Remember that ASD does not automatically make a person aggressive. Meltdowns can happen, but they’re often about being overwhelmed. If your ASD acquaintance is visibly agitated, merely give them space and time to calm themselves.  
  • Forget social norms and conventions. Repetitive behaviours, such as hand flapping or noises, are coping mechanisms — nothing to be concerned about. Remember that eye contact may be difficult for an ASD person. Many ASD people use their body — not words — to communicate. Try not to stare when they do unusual things.
  • Look for creative ways to connect. Ask a caregiver for best practice advice for individuals. Speak at a reasonable pace and volume, and use short sentences. Some children connect with touch, music or animals. Think non-verbal, perhaps pictures or flash-cards. Don’t expect an immediate response; it may take time.
  • Be aware of sensitivities. Some people with autism are hypersensitive to sounds, smells or certain physical sensations. Some are exactly the opposite. Ask a caregiver for advice about making the environment comfortable for the person with ASD.
  • Let people practice. Reach out and help ASD people practice social interaction. Every child and young adult needs to practice social interaction.
  • Foster awareness. Remember your reaction to a person with ASD becomes part of how they see themselves and how others see them.
  • Advocate for more respect and behavioural training supports. Sound the alarm about the lack of services for people, especially once they hit age 18. Take an active stand against bullying and abuse.
  • Be inclusive. Keep in mind that ASD is complex. Focus on more than just a “cure.” Think acceptance and inclusion. Says Iarocci: “It’s not the kind of thing you can fix. You need to be understanding. People with ASD just do things differently.”