Understanding autism: Supporting a loved one

This week, college student Rebecca Riddle joined us for a work placement. Here, she explains what autism is, and how you can support a loved one with a diagnosis.

What is autism?

Autism or Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a developmental disability that affects people when communicating with their peers or with anybody else in their community. It also affects certain aspects of the person’s behaviour, for example, they may follow a specific routine, and react in a negative way if the routine has been changed.

According to the NHS, roughly one in 100 people are diagnosed with ASD, though there may be many more going undiagnosed.

Having ASD can increase the chances of people also having learning disabilities, however you need to be clinically assessed in order to get a diagnosis.

When is the condition present?

Typically, signs will be present or develop when a child is three or under, though diagnosis can be made long after they have reached adulthood, if not at all. The signs of ASD typically include:

  • Delayed speech development or not speaking at all.
  • Repetition of words and phrases.
  • The sound of their speech is flat.
  • Preferring to speak using single words, even though they are capable to speak in sentences.

When it comes to children responding to others, they may:

  • Not respond to their name being called.
  • Reject hugs that parents/carers give.

Autistic people who have received a diagnosis and attend school may find it difficult to socialise with other kids. They may be unable to make friends with kids their own age, and may need to have extra support from teachers. They are also vulnerable to being bullied by other children as they are seen as “different”. Being treated this way as a child can have detrimental effects; such as low self-esteem and lack of confidence.

Couple holding hands at sunset

What can we do to help and care for those who have been diagnosed?

While the cause of this condition is unknown, there are ways to help support and care for those who have been diagnosed with ASD. One way you can do this is by talking to them. Offer your support and help them express their problems so that together, you can come up with a solution to tackle what it is they’re struggling with.

Here are some ways you can help:

  • If they don’t want to say how they’re feeling verbally, you can ask them to draw on a piece of paper, that way the drawings will help describe how they’re feeling.
  • Another way to encourage communication is to start a conversation with “Are you OK?” and if they respond with no, you can either respond with “Is there anything bothering you?” or “Would you like to talk about it?”
  • Make sure you don’t ask them too many questions, and don’t word the questions in a way that they cannot understand, otherwise it may overwhelm them.
  • It’s hard to see a loved one suffering, however before you communicate with them, you have to think before you speak. It’s fine saying “cheer up” or “it’s not that bad” to an extent, but it could make the situation worse. Be sensitive in what you say and try to keep your feelings out of it, you are supporting them right now.
  • Finally, try and learn more about their diagnosis, there are plenty of resources available. With research, you can get a better understanding of what they are going through and how you are able to help.

Don’t forget, you’re not alone in this. You can speak to a professional – like a counsellor – to get a better understanding of autism and advice on how to support your friend, as well as how to cope yourself. Go to events that talk about autism and read plenty, but don’t forget to speak to the person themselves! Ask them how you can support them and remind them that you are there for them whenever they need help.

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Written by Ellen Lees
Head of Content.
Written by Ellen Lees
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