Caring for Adults with Autism

adult with autism

Tips for Caring for Adults with Autism

Social, emotional, communication or behavioral challenges, or a combination, are common among people with autism spectrum disorders (ASD, or autism). If you care for someone with ASD, you may notice that they may not react to, interact with, or learn about people and things in the same way you do. These differences, which often require a modified approach to communication and care, may include:

  • Difficulty or inability to adapt when routines or environments change
  • Trouble expressing themselves through typical words or gestures
  • Unusual reactions or aversions to certain sounds, textures, smells, tastes, and sights
  • Trouble relating to, having an interest in, or communicating with other people
  • Avoidance of eye contact or socialization
  • Difficulty understanding their own or other’s feelings
  • Aversion to touch
  • Repetitive or restrictive behaviors
  • Repetitive speech
  • Difficulty communicating needs
  • Misunderstanding of directions or questions
  • Taking everything literally (even when it’s not meant that way)
  • Unusual attachments to objects or preoccupation with specific interests or actions

When caring for adults on the spectrum, certain strategies can help caregivers improve communication, promote a calmer and more productive daily routine, and support continued personal growth.

Schedule Ample Time for Communication

Language and social skills vary widely among people with ASD. Some adults with autism have minimal communication challenges, perhaps just taking things too literally or having trouble with certain social cues. Others may be hard to understand, have trouble following conversations or directions, or even be completely nonverbal. Time and patience are essential for improving communication.

When talking with someone you’re caring for, whether it’s an everyday conversation or you’re trying to explain something more challenging, it’s important to be respectful and address the person like an adult. As you speak, try to focus on being as literal, clear, and direct as possible, avoiding sarcasm, metaphors, and abstract language, as these may be difficult to understand.

Exercise patience as you wait for a response, as someone with ASD may need a little extra time to process what you’ve just said before they can verbally or physically respond. Then, take time to listen and try to understand what they are saying. If needed, you can ask the person to repeat their response or you can pose a few more questions to clarify what they mean, as long as those follow-ups are respectful and patient. Finally, it’s important to offer honest but kind feedback – based on the person’s level of communication and understanding – about any socially inappropriate behaviors or areas they can focus on to make communication a little easier. Supportive, patient communication goes a long way.

Reinforce Consistency

People with autism often have trouble adjusting to changes in routines, schedules, and environments. Changes may bring about anxiety, frustration, and even emotional outbursts. Consistency can help someone with autism feel more in control and may bring them some comfort if they’re feeling otherwise anxious. By trying to establish consistency in their environment and daily routines, you can help an adult with autism feel more independent and secure, relieve some of the stress they may be feeling, help them achieve their goals, and improve your relationship.

Depending on the level of care you’re providing and the person’s individual needs, goals, and challenges, your daily routines together can vary. They will often involve getting ready for the day, meal preparation and eating, daily chores and responsibilities, social activities and/or hobbies, therapies, and education or employment (when applicable).

Creating a basic list or outline of each task the person sets out to, or should, complete each day can help. This daily schedule should include how long each task or activity is expected to take and what steps are included within each task or activity. Setting alarms or timers for when certain activities should begin is helpful for many people, as is marking a calendar with important appointments and events. A visual reminder of the steps to follow in each task – whether a bulleted list or a chart with picture representations, depending on the individual’s level of ability – can help them stick to a consistent routine. You may need to provide guidance through each step until they get the hang of it, and offer praise (and sometimes rewards) for a job well done.

As you establish this consistency, a daily routine will become easier for the person with ASD to maintain. Gradually adding new tasks, or steps for each task, can help someone become more flexible, but try to follow the individual’s pace and be respectful of their comfort level.

Participate in Emotional Preparation

Any kind of change can be difficult for someone with autism. A move to a new home, a new or different therapy, a trip to an unfamiliar place, and major events like the death of a pet or loved one can be overwhelming to someone with ASD. Unexpected changes tend to be the most traumatic, and unfortunately there are some you can’t predict or prepare for. Being as supportive, patient, and kind as possible matters most in those moments. But for changes you can plan for, clear communication can make a big difference in how a person with autism is able to handle the situation.

As far in advance as possible, you should tell the person with ASD what change is coming, when to expect it, and why that change is a good opportunity or how it will benefit them. Countdown calendars, practice runs or drives to a new location, videos or photographic representations of what the person can expect during the new activity or at the new location, and promises of rewards for successful completion of a new (and often anxiety-provoking) activity can be helpful strategies. Allowing extra time for the transition, permitting the person to bring comfort items or positive distractions along, and trying to be calm and patient along the way will help you both navigate change more smoothly.

Give Them Personal Space

While some people with autism frequently overstep the social conventions of personal space – perhaps talking too close to others or hugging strangers – many others have difficulty with both the social and sensory aspects of interaction. Some individuals with ASD don’t like making eye contact or engaging with others because they have trouble understanding and responding to social cues within a conversation. Others are overwhelmed by noisy conversation or don’t like to be touched. A hug, handshake, or brush on the arm may make them feel anxious and very uncomfortable.

That’s why it’s so important to give adults with autism their personal space. Forcing someone who feels this level of discomfort to talk to someone too closely, take someone’s hand (especially a stranger), or hug may lead to trust and communication issues. Try to assess their level of comfort. Let them come to you for a hug or a handshake and use other tactics to greet them or calm stressful situations, such as giving them a wave and a smile or saying something supportive or complimentary.

Remain Calm and Patient

People with autism are dealing with a lot. They may feel like they have little control over their emotions or feel overwhelmed by normal sensory inputs like sounds, sights, and smells. They may be very anxious about a recent change in their lives or frustrated by their inability to understand and participate in a conversation as much as they’d like to. They may be completely unable to communicate verbally.

Remaining calm and patient when talking with someone who has ASD, and helping them navigate everyday life, is so important because it comforts them and helps bring order and understanding to overwhelming situations. Showing empathy, telling (and showing) them that they are safe and valued, avoiding losing your temper whenever possible, offering comfort items or distractions, and trying to engage them in coping strategies (talking, deep breathing, yoga) can go a long way in your caregiving.

Why Tailoring Your Approach is so Important

Behavioral Health services is a specialized division at Open Systems Healthcare that is designed to support those living with intellectual or developmental disabilities. We employ prevention and intervention strategies to improve emotional, psychological and social well-being, and can offer help in both home and community settings. Questions about how we can help? Give us a call today: 855-616-2662.