How Can I Help Autistic People?

title of post, "How Can I Help Autistic People?"

If you’ve clicked on this blog post on purpose, congratulations! You have already taken the first and most important two steps to help autistic people: 1. Give a shit, 2. Listen to autistic people about their own experiences. You would be surprised how many people fall at the first hurdle, so I want to genuinely thank you for giving a shit – with the caveat that it’s a pretty low bar, and you shouldn’t expect to be thanked or ego-stroked for simply exhibiting decent human behaviour, especially by autistic individuals in your life who have plenty of other shit to be dealing with. Step 3 is probably, “Let go of the notion that you can learn a set of steps and instantly become the perfect ally to autistic people.”

If the question is, “How can I help autistic people as a community?” then the answer is reasonably straightforward: do as you (hopefully) would with any other marginalised community. This includes amplifying our voices instead of adding or centring your own, sharing educational resources, especially among your friends who are also not members of this community, speaking up in defense of our basic human rights and dignity even if we aren’t there to witness it, etc. I know that “straightforward” does not mean “easy”, but let that giving-a-shit fuel you to continually put in the work of educating and advocating.

If the question is, “How can I help autistic individuals in my life?” then the answer becomes a great deal more complicated. Like other humans, no two autistic people are exactly alike, and our needs and problems are as varied as we are. Our most visible problems are meltdowns (moments of responding to intense distress by way of crying, shouting, rocking etc) and shutdowns (responding to intense distress by withdrawing, becoming quieter and often unable to perform basic tasks), so we’ll start there.

My number one biggest tip here is to ask the autistic person what they need from you during a meltdown, at a time they are not distressed. Regardless of whether or not you’re actually able to extract the information you’re looking for, it will be easier for the autistic person to give you a thorough overview of what’s going on for them in a moment of relative calm (e.g. instead of asking more than once in the midst of all the supermarket noise, “What’s wrong? What do you need?” during a meltdown or shutdown, wait until you’re back in the car and the person has got their vape to ask, “Hey, I noticed you were struggling in Tesco. For future reference, what’s the most helpful thing I can do when you’re going through that?”). Mid-meltdown communication is hard, and I personally find it easier to answer closed, yes/no or this/that questions than anything less specific about what my needs are – for example, the only response you’ll get to, “What do you want to eat?” will be confused wailing, whereas I’m more able to answer “Would you like chicken or fish? Do you want ketchup?” with either words or nods/head-shakes. I also find it frustrating to be pressed when the only answer I have is “I don’t know,” and if I don’t know now I won’t know the third time you ask (even if it seems odd to you that I don’t know how cold I am, or whether I need to pee), so I can imagine that other autistic people would prefer you accept their first answer unless they volunteer another one. And if this isn’t obvious, please don’t touch a distressed autistic person (or, really, any autistic person) without their express permission, unless it is absolutely necessary to keep them safe. Sometimes I would benefit from a big, intense, squishy hug, but other times my fight-or-flight response is already on the brink of starting, and to touch me uninvited would not only intensify that, but bring with it the fear that the “fight” bit will render me a danger to you. Again, yes/no questions help so it’s totally reasonable to ask, “Is it okay if I touch you?” before you commence that soothing bear hug.

But autistic people aren’t melting/shutting down through every waking moment of their lives, so how can you be of help in a non-meltdown, day-to-day sort of way? Well, again, every autistic person is different and has different needs, so you do need to actually talk to the autists in your life to figure out what help you could offer them. However, I will say that a majority of autistic people struggle with atypical sensory perception, so asking whether your speech is an okay volume, whether the room is too warm, when it’s okay to initiate touch, etc. are all good starting points which will grant your autistic friend permission to voice their sensory needs. The same is true of communication – some autistic people might benefit from you adding line breaks into your longer messages, being able to look at your face and lipread as you speak, etc., and obviously improving your communication with one another will also help you gain a clearer picture of other ways you can be helpful.

You can also be helpful in just… regular ways that you would help anybody else. Autistic people expend a lot more energy than our allistic counterparts on things like sensory processing, masking our symptoms, interpreting social signals etc., and that leaves us with less energy for every element of day-to-day living. If you want to help a particular autistic individual through a rough time, I cannot overstate how much difference practical help can make – do your friend’s dishes! Help them make phone calls! Tidy their front room! Only do these things with the person’s permission, because autistic people are sometimes sensitive to people entering our space and touching our stuff but also because it’s the polite thing to do in this context. (I would encourage you to approach autistic people with politeness even when it seems we don’t fully understand the rules of politeness or their significance, because we can often still perceive when we’re being treated differently and because, again, we’re human people.) If you can’t do these things because of distance or Covid or your own disability, but you want to help monetarily, I’m inclined to suggest that donating to individuals’ emergency fundraisers and buying your autistic friend a takeaway is a better use of your money than pouring it into an organisaton, since a majority of autism-focused organisations do problematic shit and do not materially help autistic people in any way (google “Autism Speaks” if you’re ready to be horrified), but again, you can ask your friend what they would prefer. 

I’m sorry that the core of this post is simply, “Ask us!”, but there really isn’t any better advice – I could make a million suggestions to a single autistic person and their support system, but as soon as we’re looking at the autistic population as a whole, the variability of presentations and of humans makes it impossible to issue more specific advice. I hope this post has at least helped you know how to ask us, and reassured you that it’s okay not to know instantly how to be helpful in every situation. If you want to read more from me on autism, click here, and if not, thank you for reading and I’ll see y’all soon!

FREE RESOURCE: Autism Shapes

So I am aware that this is a sex blog, but it’s also an autism blog, and, as usual, I have a bee in my bonnet about the general public’s perception of autism and their limited understanding of what the autism spectrum actually is. Functioning labels (“high-functioning autistic” and “low-functioning autistic”) are limiting and without nuance, and are mostly defined by how much one’s autism inconveniences the people around them and/or impacts their ability to contribute to an ableist and capitalist society. They fail to take into account the fact that most autistic people don’t have the same level of difficulty unilaterally with all aspects of life, and they make me so annoyed that I want to bite people.

So I made a PDF, because confrontation scares me. You can access it by clicking here. Essentially, the PDF introduces the Autism Shape, a way to visualise the experiences of autistic people in a way that doesn’t limit them to a sliding scale which goes from “not very useful in a capitalist society” to “rather useful in a capitalist society”. The blank template looks like this:

A sort of graph thingy with eight straight lines protruding from a black dot in the middle. These lines are marked at intervals, labelled from 1 (closest to the centre) to 10. They are all labelled with different things an autistic person may struggle with. From the top, clockwise, these are: Social interaction, Sensory perception, Interoception & self-care, Flexible thinking, Adjusting to change, Paralinguistic communication, Verbal communication and Cognitive empathy. In the bottom-right corner, there is some text which reads, “Morgan Peschek, 2019. Feel free to share, but please credit me!”

The idea is to prioritise the nuanced, lived experience of autistic people over the perceptions of their “functioning” that other individuals might have. You mark your own values on the template, with 1 meaning “I struggle a lot with this” and 10 meaning “I’m fucking amazing at this”, and then you connect the dots to create a fun shape, like so:

A radar chart related to the autism spectrum, with eight "spokes" each labelled with a different aspect of autism. More information is available in the PDF.
The same graph as before, but this time with a teal eight-sided polygon drawn onto it. This is my own Autism Shape.

I’ve been developing the Autism Shape for a while now, and I’m really pleased with it, but I’m always open to suggestions! I’m particularly interested in input on how to make the PDF more accessible to people who use screenreaders, and to people with dyslexia for whom black text on a white background is difficult to read.

Who this resource is for:

  • Autistic people who want to define and express their own experience of autism
  • Professionals who work with autistic people and who know that the high/low functioning model is a pile of shit
  • Friends and families of autistic people, only for the purpose of showing it to said autistic person and saying, “Hey, this might be a helpful tool for you!”

Who this resource is not for:

  • Anybody who plans to build an Autism Shape on behalf of an autistic person. Obviously you can help them, but the whole point of revisualising the spectrum is to help autistic people define and express their own experiences.
  • At the moment, people who can’t read English, because I don’t have the means to accurately translate it or to commission a translation (let me know if you do!)
  • Anybody who practices ABA (Applied Behaviour Analysis), because if you use my cool resource as a way to harm autistic people, I might actually bite you.

I really hope that this tool helps my fellow autistics, and I encourage all my readers to share it far and wide. And on Saturday, I’ll be climbing off my high horse to deliver some smut, since this is a sex blog – stay tuned!


Liked this post? Excited by the work I’m doing? Amazed that it took me multiple hours to create the goddamn template in free graphic design software? Consider joining my Patreon to help me do more things like this!

Disability, Dignity and the Myth of Independence

Stock image of the side of a door with keys inserted in the keyhole, primarily because it was the nicest thing that came up when i searched for "access".

I am well and truly fed up with people talking to me – or at me – about disability & independence.

You hear it in school. You hear it in college. You hear it in media about or relating to disability. Even the UK government calls the benefits it awards to disabled people “Personal Independence Payments”. And honestly? It gets on my tired, disabled nerves.

It gets on my nerves because very few people are truly independent. Have you ever ordered a pizza? You depended on somebody else to cook and deliver it. Have you ever made a phone call? You depended on the engineers who made that possible and on the person who sold you your phone. Even when people go off-grid, living self-sufficiently in reclaimed shipping containers, they’re often relying on the inventors and manufacturers of solar panels. I cannot think of a single person who is actually truly independent, because humans are social animals who are hardwired to rely on, and to help, other humans.

So why do I, as a disabled young adult, have to strive for some arbitrary level of independence that is vaguely defined and contrary to human nature?

People talk about independence like it should be the end goal for many folks with disabilities. The ideal disabled person, in society’s eyes, is one who can go places alone, do their grocery shopping on their own, complete household tasks unassisted and rely on nobody. Which is especially weird when you consider the number of adult men who have no clue how to do laundry or where to find vegetables in a supermarket, having sailed from life with parents to life with a partner who, if they’re female or assigned female, will do all of those things for them. In suggesting that disabled people should aim to – or want to – reach a level of independence whereby they don’t need to live with somebody or use the services of a carer, we’re holding disabled people to a higher standard than lazy men without disabilities.

Holding disabled people to high standards isn’t new, of course; one need only glance at the coverage of any Paralympics event to realise that disabled people are expected either to be groundbreakingly good at something or to melt into the background, meek and inoffensive. Expecting disabled people to be more independent than their abled peers isn’t outside of the norm, but it is damaging and hurtful to those of us who might never be able to live alone or who might always need to phone their mum before sending an email (which I definitely do). I’ve learned not to feel bad that I’ll never be a Paralympic athlete, or Rain Man, but I still feel bad that I’m not the wholly independent disabled person that I’m allegedly supposed to be.

I propose that we shift our focus away from independence, and instead look to a more subjective, holistic measure of quality of life for disabled people: dignity.

The wonderful thing about promoting dignity, rather than independence, is that its parameters change from person to person. For example: Alex, Bobby and Carly all have a disability that makes unlacing boots difficult for them. Alex feels undignified when xir partner unlaces xir boots for them, so xe spends the extra time practicing unlacing xir boots and mastering the use of a shoehorn to make the process easier. Bobby feels undignified when he’s bent over, struggling with his laces for fourteen full minutes, so he asks his friend to give him a hand. Carly, meanwhile, finds that both of those options undermine her personal sense of dignity, so she only buys and wears boots with elastic and no laces at all.

That last sentence is important – specifically, the part about Carly’s “personal sense of dignity”. We all experience dignity differently and can find different situations more or less dignified depending on our cultural backgrounds, personal hang-ups and many other factors. Independence is a rigid, standardised goal that looks similar for everybody who strives for it, but dignity is a personal, flexible goal that is achievable for everyone.

Some people probably wouldn’t feel dignified rocking backwards and forwards in a shopping centre, humming to themselves – but that, for me, feels more dignified than staying home, and certainly more dignified than a full-scale meltdown in a public place. The beauty of it is that I get to decide what makes me feel comfortable and act accordingly, without worrying that I’m not “independent” enough, and also without any external pressure to eventually “progress” to not using my tried-and-tested coping strategies, including reliance on my support network.

I don’t want to strive for independence. I’m a human, living in society, and I want to be able to lean on other people when I need to without guilt. I’m going to strive for dignity instead, however that looks for me.


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