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Guidance for communicating and interacting with autistic people

Autistic people have unique ways of communicating and interacting that are rooted in their unique ways of thinking and experiencing the world. While there is much variation between autistic individuals, the following guidelines are a few good things to consider when communicating with autistic people.

- Distance: Many autistic people are hypertactile and may be afraid that people who get too close might touch them, or they may simply feel uncomfortable with the nearness of people (especially strangers). Some autistic people may enjoy physical contact in some situations and not mind closeness as much. However, unless you know this is true, it is a good idea to be ‘better safe than sorry’.

- Olfactory issues: It is better not to wear perfume if you know you are going to be around autistic people.

- Rate of approach: It is not a good idea to approach an autistic person too quickly, or from behind.

- Different rhythm of interaction: In contrast to non-autistic people who tend to experience silence as uncomfortable and to attempt to fill it with small talk, autistic people prefer to say what they have to say, then stop talking and wait for the other to respond.

- Less non-verbal communication: Autistic people communicate mostly with words, not with body language and facial expressions.

- Directness (just facts): When dealing with autistic people speak matter-of-factly and to the point. Giving a lot of empty words or over-explaining may overwhelm many autistic people with too much information to be processed, causing confusion. It is best simply give all the relevant details in short simple sentences, without unnecessary decorative words.

- Literal interpretation: Autistic people rarely ‘read between the lines’. They take words literally, usually use words directly and say what they mean, without wrapping up their message into idioms or tone of voice, etc.

- Be careful with emotions: It is best not to be emotional when speaking to an autistic person. Autistic people find it difficult to interpret this extra information. Besides, they may find emotional outbursts too loud, unpredictable and overwhelming. (However, contrary to popular belief, many autistic people do have an acute sense for the emotional state another person is in. They can ‘pick up emotional waves’ even if the person tries to hide them.)

- Mode of communication: Many autistic individuals prefer written communication (emails, messages, et.) to talking on the phone. [1] It’s not just that they do not like talking on the phone, they hate it! Always ask what mode of communication they prefer.

- Listen, accept, respect: Everyone deserves respect. Autistic people should not be used or patronized (that is often the case). It is good to take other people’s differences into account but not to treat someone as helpless or incompetent because of it. People should listen to each other, accept each other’s needs and problems, and respect them even if they do not understand them.


[1] Howard PL, Sedgewick F (2021) investigated the preferred modes of communication in autism and found that generally email was preferred, and phone calls were very unpopular. It means that services should move away from a reliance on phone calls for communication and instead offer written options.

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