What to say to someone with autism?
One way of learning what to say to someone with autism (and what NOT to say) is to listen. Ethan, an autism advocate, explains all.
Editor’s Note: Ethan Hirschberg, a 17-year-old Autism advocate and blogger from California, draws on his lived experience to tell us what to say to someone with autism. In this article, Ethan uses the term “with Autism.” We acknowledge that the majority of the online Autistic Community prefers to use identity-first language like “Someone who is Autistic,” rather than saying “Someone with Autism.” Still, we also respect Ethan's right to use person-first language.
What to say to someone with autism?
Throughout my life, I have been told and overheard many comments about autism. These comments show a lack of knowledge and understanding of autism. Even though people don’t intend to upset me, I still was hurt by what they said.
It isn’t all bad. I have also heard some great things that have made my day. Here are some things that I have heard people say about autism over the years and how I feel about them. I will begin with what NOT to say to someone with autism and then finish with what to say to someone with autism?
What not to say to someone with autism
1. “Don’t worry, everyone’s a little Autistic.”
No. Not everyone. According to the CDC, in the U.S. 1 in 59 children has been identified with an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). We’re not all a little Autistic. There are countless struggles that I deal with every day, and comparing Autism-related struggles, to other people’s struggles, is just plain insulting. You have no idea what it’s like… and you’ll never know.
2. “You must be like Rainman or something.”
Here we go again… not everyone on the spectrum is a genius. Rainman was about a man who had savant skills.
According to the Autism Research Institute, 10% of people with Autism have savant skills. Not everyone is that smart. Some might be smarter, but not necessarily a genius. It makes me wonder why I can’t be a genius too!
3. “Do you take medication for that?”
This breaks my heart every time I hear it. I feel upset that people think that medication is always involved. And besides, I learned a great lesson from my cousin. She went through a recent health crisis and said, “taking medication prescribed by a psychiatrist is no different than taking medication for heart disease or to fight infection. You take it so you can be healthy and safe!”
4. “I have social issues too. I must have Autism.”
Sure, you may have social issues or experience social anxiety, or you may have sensory difficulties or something else like I do. But comparing yourself to me with all my challenges is rude and shows a complete lack of understanding of Autism.
5. “You seem so normal! You don’t look Autistic.”
How does someone with autism look? What physical characteristics make someone look like they have Autism? None.
Let’s play a game. Look at this photo of six kids. Three have Autism; three don't. Can you diagnose which kid has Autism? (The answers are at the end of the article).
Did you guess correctly? Not easy, right!
What to say to someone with autism:
1. “Do you need help with anything?”
I love this one. It shows that the person who is asking cares about me. I know that they are willing to go out of their way to make me comfortable. I feel respected. It often even makes my day!
2. “Oh, that explains a lot about …why you touch the ground” or “why you walk back and forth.”
Saying that my diagnosis explains some specific behaviors is a good thing to say. I know that by sharing my diagnosis, I answer questions from the people I often find myself interacting with.
3. “Can you explain what Autism is to me?”
This is a great one as well. Many people decide to believe the stereotypes of Autism, which are often wrong. By asking me to explain what Autism is, they can get an accurate answer that they can share.
4. “I’m here if you want to talk.”
This goes back to the first one. I know that the person asking is thinking about me and extending themselves as a resource. What a simple but kind and generous act! Sometimes, I even use their help if I need it.
5. “Do you want to come and eat lunch with us?”
I don’t have many friends at school. So, I love it when people ask me to join them for lunch. I can try it out, and if I like it, do it again. This provides me with much-needed social interaction.
And by the way, kids numbers one, two, and three have Autism. Photo credit to AutisticNotWierd
Ethan Hirschberg, the author of "What not to say to someone with autism," is 17 years old. When he was two, he was diagnosed with high-functioning autism. Today he is an aspiring author, amongst other pursuits.