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!