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Engaging with people with autism spectrum disorder

Tips to support an effective engagement process with people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

What is autism spectrum disorder?

Autism spectrum disorder refers to a range of conditions that affect communication, social interaction and behaviour. Each person with ASD tends to experience some difficulties with the following areas:

  • understanding and using verbal (language) and non-verbal (facial expression, gesture and body language) communication
  • understanding social behaviour, which affects their ability to interact with other people
  • thinking and behaving flexibly, which may show in restricted, obsessional or repetitive activities.

Some people may experience sensory issues, such as a hypersensitivity to sound.

Verbal information and communication

When you are planning to engage with people with ASD, follow these guidelines.

  • Some people may prefer whānau members or carers to express their preferences on their behalf, as they trust them to understand and communicate their individual needs. Ask permission from the person to gather this information.
  • Be aware that some people with ASD may:
    • operate according to a particular set of routines or rules. Being aware of these will help you to avoid inadvertently doing or saying something that triggers difficulties
    • have difficulty engaging in a face-to-face interview. Some people may prefer to sit side by side, to minimise eye contact
    • have difficulty in understanding and following verbal information. It might be helpful to send questions in advance or have a printed copy for the person to refer to
    • have difficulty understanding body language or social norms
    • have difficulty with registering, showing or managing emotions. This may result in stress for the person
    • experience auditory processing disorder, ie, difficulty deciphering sounds which are experienced as ‘garbled’ (eg, when multiple conversations are occurring at once)
    • have difficulty organising and planning, and recognising what information is important
    • have difficulty thinking flexibly and problem solving. For example, the person may return to 1 or a few specific topics, or may not know how to resolve a particular problem
    • be anxious about making mistakes, which may mean they say nothing or too much. They may overanalyse information, or second guess it.
  • Be aware that a person with ASD may be too shy to introduce themselves in a group setting.
  • Presume intelligence.
  • Give as much advance notice as possible, and printed material ahead of time if possible.
  • If food is being served, check dietary needs beforehand.
  • Use simple, clear and concise words. Be mindful of using words that have multiple meanings, sarcasm, irony and figures of speech, as some people with ASD may take words quite literally.
  • Allow the conversation to take place at a slightly slower pace. Allow the person time to respond to questions, and take time to listen and understand their response.
  • Do not insist on making eye contact.
  • Include breaks in the meeting, and if possible a quiet room to take ‘time out’.
  • Be prepared to communicate in ways other than verbally, for example through writing or using pictures or visual aids (eg, visual timetables, photographs/pictures, social stories, objects and symbols).
  • Check that you have understood what the person has communicated. Ask questions to clarify your understanding, or get people to repeat what they have said so that you are sure you understand. Do not pretend to understand.
  • Try to choose a venue that has minimal distractions. Avoid rooms with high background noise, such as traffic, and rooms with harsh lighting/bright sunlight. Keep distractions to a minimum.

For more information, see also:

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