How to Interact with Someone Who Has Autism: Basic Dos & Don’ts

Genesis ABA Therapy cheat sheet

The Cheat Sheet You Wished Others Had

Oftentimes friends or extended family members feel unsure of how to interact and don’t want to do or say anything offensive by accident. In fact, plenty of people feel uncertain about the “right” way to be around someone with an intellectual or developmental disability. Autism prevalence has reached record highs – 1 in 45 children in America todayreceive a diagnosis – but autism awareness is a relatively new cultural phenomenon. That’s why we’ve put together this list of basic do’s and don’ts for interacting with individuals with autism.

Parents, consider this the cheat sheet you’ve always wished you had to share with the world.


Always show respect

First, speak to any person you meet – child or adult – with respect. Use common courtesy; never talk down to people or discuss them as though they’re not present when they are right there.

It’s easy to make incorrect assumptions about an individual’s mental capacity, so let your default setting be one of positive regard. Always assume that the other person can understand everything that you’re saying, and speak accordingly.

After all, just because a person’s mannerisms are different than yours doesn’t meant that they have limited cognitive or relational ability. People with intellectual and developmental disabilities have unique sets of strengths and weaknesses, just like the rest of us.

Use person-first language

Person-first language means that you refer to the individual first, and the condition last. So instead of saying, “My autistic friend”, you’d say, “My friend who has autism” or, “My friend with autism.” Of course, it goes without saying that you should avoid outdated and offensive terms such as “retarded”.

Recognize the common characteristics of autism

If you don’t know much about autism, it’s understandable that you might feel uncertain when interacting with people on the spectrum. As such, it’s helpful to learn the basics about autism’s diagnostic criteria.

As Autism Speaks’ What Is Autism page notes, autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder that results in:

  • Social-interaction difficulties
  • Communication challenges
  • A tendency to engage in repetitive behaviors

That said, there’s a tremendous degree of diversity within the autism community. Individuals with Aspergers Syndrome have milder challenges in these three core areas and thus typically have a higher level of independence, while individuals with more severe autism need additional supports.

Individuals with autism often find it difficult to make eye contact, communicate emotions, and interact socially. However, with guidance they can learn these skills and step into their social potential.

Learn about behaviors and don’t take them personally

It’s normal to feel confused or taken aback by unusual behaviors such as intermittent eye contact or hand-flapping. But familiarizing yourself with behavioral characteristics of autism will help you to take these actions in stride.

As blogger and avid autism awareness advocate Caroline McGraw wrote in her A Wish Come Clear blog post, It’s Taboo, So Let’s Talk About It: Interacting with People with Special Needs:

 “If someone doesn’t seem to understand you when you speak, don’t take it personally or feel like you’ve failed; the fact that you’re trying to communicate respectfully speaks volumes. Ideally, engage with the person along with someone who knows them well; having a ‘translator’ for another person’s words and actions can be invaluable.

Be humble, open, and receptive

There’s a saying in the autism community: “If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.” This means that there is no one so-called “typical” person with autism; instead, there’s a great diversity of ability, temperament, and character.

For example, while you may have a niece on the spectrum, spending time with her may not prepare you to befriend your co-worker with Aspergers. Approach your interactions from a place of humility. Be willing to learn about each individual person: what they like and dislike, what helps and hurts them, what they need to function best.

Don’t forget about parents of children with autism

One of the best gifts that you can give the parents of a child with autism is to be kind to their child. That said, parents need your care and compassion as well. Go the extra mile to reach out to them. Be a good friend: Invite them to go places, listen well, and include them in your community.

As Alexis Villaries notes in her Parent Herald article, 7 Things Parents With An Autistic Child Wish You Knew:

“Parents … need love and acceptance just like their kids … They have worked so hard to fit in the typical world and including them [in] your plans will make them feel accepted.”

Refrain from giving advice on autism

Unless you’re a trained professional or you’ve specifically been asked for your input, resist the temptation to give advice on autism. Sure, you can share helpful resources with your friends and family, but use restraint and good judgment. (No one wants to be inundated by email forwards every day, however well intentioned they may be.)

Plus, many autism parents are already avid researchers themselves–love drives them to learn about the latest scientific developments, treatments, and protocols.

If you’re not sure what constitutes a trustworthy source or reputable research, The Association for Science in Autism Treatment is a good place to start.

If you’re looking for a research-proven, evidence-based treatment for autism, Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) Therapy is in a class by itself. It is recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the U.S. Surgeon General, and most major psychological and psychiatric associations as well.

Looking for an additional, hands-on resource that can help you, your child, and your community become better educated about children with autism? Discover the importance of ABA Therapy, and gain access to a full video library of professional ABA therapy, by simply signing up for a free trial of FirstPath Autism today.