Practicing Kindness and Awareness: Autism Edition

Jennifer Carlson, PhD, Psychologist, The Pritzker Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Health, offers mindful behaviors we can all practice to better support the autism community.

The approaches outlined here are universal and can be applied to all types of relationships, but they serve as a particularly important learning opportunity and discussion topic for adults and kids alike when it comes to autism. “It comes down to simply being a good neighbor,” Dr. Carlson says.

Building trust

Rightfully so, people within the autism community have their own thoughts and feelings about how they want to be addressed. Some prefer “autistic individual,” while others are more comfortable with “individual with autism.” The best and most appropriate thing we can do is to let the person we’re engaging with lead and tell us, whether explicitly or by example, how they identify with this language and how we can mirror that.

We never want to assume what someone wants to be called, and instead by following their lead, we’re able to build trust in that relationship and eliminate guessing. The same can be said about any new person we meet, neurotypical or otherwise.


Communication styles and preferences are unique to each person and it’s important to recognize that this holds true within the autism community. Every interaction shouldn’t be expected to look the same, and rather than assuming someone doesn’t know what we mean or is unable to respond, consider that vocal speech may not be how they feel most comfortable communicating. This doesn’t mean conversation isn’t possible with autistic individuals, just that we should pay closer attention to their strengths and abilities and meet them there. Inquiring about how someone communicates vs. asking if they are verbal or non-verbal gives us a chance to do that.

Another way we can promote strong communication with our friends and children in the autism community is to be more proactive in setting them up for success when it’s applicable. Social situations can be challenging and confusing for some people, so rather than waiting for them to misinterpret other’s unspoken intentions in conversation, kindly offer them the tools they might need to feel or act more comfortable in that setting. For example, using figures of speech or sarcasm can be easily misinterpreted. It can be helpful to remember to say what you mean and mean what you say. And if you’re unsure of how to be helpful, just ask!

Real-time reactions

People with autism can be highly sensitive and reactive to jarring sensory stimuli (noises, lights, or smells), crowded spaces, changes in their routine, social situations, among other scenarios. Sometimes reactions to these triggers escalate in public, and onlookers aren’t sure how to respond. The best thing we can do during a public meltdown is to refrain from judgement and criticism (of the individual and their parent/caregiver), remain calm and offer support, whether physical or emotional.

We rarely have enough background to form opinions or make sweeping generalizations on a situation while it’s happening. If we stop to recognize that meltdowns are always preceded by a highly distressing situation unique to the individual, we’re more likely to handle it with care and understanding above anything else.


About Autism

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a neurological and developmental disorder that affects how people interact with others, communicate, learn, and behave. Although autism can be diagnosed at any age, it is described as a “developmental disorder” because symptoms generally appear in the first two years of life.

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), a guide created by the American Psychiatric Association that health care providers use to diagnose mental disorders, people with ASD often have:

  • Difficulty with communication and interaction with other people
  • Restricted interests and repetitive behaviors
  • Symptoms that affect their ability to function in school, work, and other areas of life

Autism is known as a “spectrum” disorder because there is wide variation in the type and severity of symptoms people experience.

People of all genders, races, ethnicities, and economic backgrounds can be diagnosed with ASD. Although ASD can be a lifelong disorder, treatments and services can improve a person’s symptoms and daily functioning. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that all children receive screening for autism. Caregivers should talk to their child’s health care provider about ASD screening or evaluation.

Source: National Institute of Mental Health

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