According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), approximately 1 in every 68 children has been diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder. Autism is about 5 times more common among boys than girls, and it affects people from all socioeconomic and racial backgrounds.
The fact that autism is so common means that, inevitably, everyone knows someone dealing with this disorder – be it a family member, neighbor, etc. Autism runs the full gamut from individuals who cannot speak or care for themselves, all the way across the spectrum to successful employees at top companies.
There are a lot of things to be learned from this special group of people, and I would like to share some of my own observations and reflections.
1) Not all communication is verbal
c neglect to notice just how important non-verbal communication is as well. This point really hit home for me when I worked with a young woman who was unable to speak, and I had to learn to pick up on her mood in more subtle ways – facial expressions and hand gestures; whether she seemed to be focusing on what was going on in the room or if her attention was elsewhere; and level of energy were all things I needed to be acutely aware of.
Being able to “read a room”, whether it be a party full of people or a job interview with one other person, is a useful skill to further develop. Start to notice people’s emotions, especially when their non-verbal communication doesn’t seem to be in sync with what they’re saying. Some common examples are people who will say they’re fine when they’re visibly upset about something, or who will avoid eye contact when they’re lying, but this list can go on and on. Become more attuned to what people are telling you with their energy, not just with their words.
2) The benefits of routine
One of the trademarks of autism is a pattern of repetitive, stereotyped behavior. This varies with the individual, of course – some people are more open, while others cannot seem to cope with the slightest detail out of place. While flexibility and spontaneity have their place in a well-balanced life, the thought of having a structured and balanced daily routine is something which could actually benefit a number of people. Try and take steps to lead a more orderly, organized life, and you’ll find that this can ease a lot of confusion and anxiety. Of course, this is easier said than done – but just as many of us learned the hard way that it’s easier to work on a paper over the course of a few days than to stay up all night before it’s due, so too, some good planning in the present can prevent a lot of unnecessary stress later on.
3) The importance of hobbies
Many children and adults with autism have a tendency to spend large amounts of time engaging in and speaking about a particular topic. This could be anything from video games to music to trains, whatever happens to strike their particular fancy. The individual will often spend a lot of time and effort studying up on their topic of choice, and will bring it up frequently in conversation.
All too often, we shuffle mindlessly about our own lives, so caught up in obligations from that we never seem to find time for the things we are truly passionate about. I’ve learned how important it is to spend some time each day, even just a few minutes, involved in something purely for its own sake – not because it will help me get ahead professionally, but simply for the sake of joy. This could be reading, playing guitar, or baking a delicious birthday cake; all that matters is that it’s done for its own enjoyment.
Working with autistic young adults can be an enormous challenge, but at the end of the day, I strongly believe that we learn just as much from our clients as they learn from us. I hope these three observations will help you become more attuned to non-verbal communications, make an effort to keep your own lives more organized and manageable, and at the same time, still find time each day to spend on things you love!
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Rachel grew up in a small-town not so unlike the one she currently lives in. She has learned that it's the small day-to-day moments which often carry the most importance in building a life.