If you have a loved who’s on the autism spectrum, you might find yourself wondering how you can best support them. Autism is a developmental disorder that impacts the nervous system. The range and severity of symptoms can vary greatly with each individual, but some common symptoms include problems with communication, difficulty with social interactions, obsessive interests, and repetitive behaviors. Autism is often diagnosed in childhood, and some behavioral and educational therapies can reduce negative symptoms and work to support improved development. Here are some ideas for techniques that might allow you to better support a friend or family member with autism.
1. Learn more about autism
Your first step in better supporting a loved one with autism should be to get educated. Learning more about the challenges they face and how they experience the world around them can give you a lot of insight and tips on how to better communicate and interact with them. Talk with a medical professional who specializes in treating people on the autism spectrum, read books on the subject, or just do a simple Google search to learn more (but try to stick to reputable sites like WebMD). It can also be beneficial for you to attend an autism support group, where you can hear stories from other family members or friends who might be facing the same challenges.
2. Provide them with an emotional support animal (ESA)
“Can emotional support animals help autism?” has become a common question in recent years – and in many cases, the answer is yes. Many people on the spectrum have been able to better manage autism with emotional support animals. An ESA can help to alleviate symptoms of mental illness (related to diagnoses such as depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder) as well as developmental disorders such as autism. If you’re wondering why ESAs help autism, it’s been shown through research into emotional support animals and autism that ESAs (especially larger breeds of dogs) can work to provide a stable, consistent presence in the life of an autistic person. People with autism can benefit by having an emotional support animal who is a grounding force, which is key for people who crave balance in a world that often feels overwhelming to them. Individuals who use repetitive behaviors to calm themselves might find that focusing on an animal instead helps to short-circuit these cycles.
If you have the opportunity to give an ESA to your loved one, there’s a chance they could benefit greatly by regularly spending time with an animal. You can apply by getting a mental health professional (such as a therapist, psychiatrist, or medical doctor) to write a letter stating that your loved one could benefit from owning an ESA. If they don’t have a trusted medical professional, you can use the MooshMe services to help connect them to a licensed mental health professional in their state. These professionals can then craft an ESA certification letter that allows your loved one to take their ESA with them on flights and in some public places.
3. Figure out their triggers
Each individual with autism has different triggers, or aspects of life that upset their sense of peace. These triggers can be sensory, such as sights, sounds, or even smells, or specific situations that they find overwhelming or disturbing. One way to be supportive is to pay attention to your loved one’s specific triggers. Note which activities make them the happiest or calmest, so that you can incorporate those into the time you spend with them. It’s also important to note that you should pay attention to all of the non-verbal clues they give you as well. Even if they don’t speak or don’t express their triggers to you specifically, you can still probably pick up which aspects of their day are upsetting to them and which ones create a more positive environment.
4. Be consistent
One of the most triggering aspects for someone with autism is any type of change. Creating consistency in their environment is key to them feeling safe and calm. If you’re a parent of an autistic child, you should stick to strict schedules or routines to help them feel like their time is structured. If you’re another family member or friend of someone with autism, you can pay attention to what consistent behaviors make them feel the most grounded – and then make sure to stick to that schedule or pattern. Consider always visiting them at the exact same day and time to show that you’re a consistent person who won’t upset their schedule.
5. Offer continual support
People with autism often need to go to many appointments (doctor’s visits, physical or occupational therapy, etc.), so one way you can help your loved one is to offer up your time to them. You can be a great help by driving them to appointments or even just making phone calls for them. If you’re trying to help out a parent of an autistic child, make sure they know you’re available to run errands or help out around the house whenever they need you to. Sometimes just an extra pair of hands can be a blessing.
6. Be there to listen
Above all, the best thing you can do is to be present with your loved one – whether that’s to provide them with a shoulder to cry on in more challenging times, or to listen to their family members when they need to talk. Even if your autistic loved one is non-verbal, they’ll be able to sense when a safe person is around who has no expectations for them and will not put any pressure on them to change. You can be an accepting and calming presence for them in a world that often feels scary.
It can be confusing to know how to support a loved one with autism if you don’t know much about the disorder. After you get educated, you’ll feel better equipped to handle any type of behavior they might exhibit. More than anything, just being available and present in the moment with them (or with members of their family) can often be the most helpful thing you can do. Whether you’re letting them know about the positive links between ESAs and autism, or you’re just showing up to spend time with them, they’ll be able to feel your continuous love and support.