More About Autism
Aspects of Autism

Autism is a complex neurological disorder that affects a person's ability to communicate and relate to other people. At the core of autism is difficulty with social relationships.

Autism is marked by repetitive behaviors and the need for routines; autism spectrum disorders can range from mild to severe and is a life-long condition.

Speak directly to the individual with autism, as you would approach any other customer. Just keep in mind, though, he/she may not respond.

Many individuals with autism are non-verbal or their speech can be hard to understand, so they may communicate through their parents or with communications devices. Be prepared for:

  • Parents asking for your patience while they help their child find the right words so they can place their order at a restaurant or ask for assistance.
  • Allowing additional time for a parent to help a child find their picture communication cards to ask you where the restroom is located or show you what they need.
  • Being patient while an independent individual enters an appropriate response in a communication device.
  • Giving a parent the take-out menu they request so they can practice ordering food at home

Because they have problems with communication, individuals with autism often have difficulties with social interactions. We encourage you and your staff to engage individuals with autism, but don't be offended if they do not respond or respond inappropriately. Individuals with autism may repeat what you just said, which is called echolalia. If you ask, "How are you today?," they may respond with, "How are you today?" Go ahead and answer them. You will help them learn the appropriate response.

During stressful and unfamiliar situations, individuals with autism may exhibit unusual or repetitive behaviors. These behaviors may be a result of their inability to effectively communicate and/or regulate sensory input. So, it just takes them longer to adjust to a new environment. The more times families expose persons with autism to outings in the community, and the more predictable the outings become, the less anxious they will become and they will have the opportunity to learn appropriate behaviors. Environmental issues that can cause sensory challenges include:

  • Loud noises
  • Bright lights
  • Unusual smells
  • Changing temperatures
  • New textures

Individuals with autism may use these behaviors as coping mechanisms:

  • Flapping hands
  • Talking to themselves
  • Crying
  • Not talking at all

Although these behaviors may be distracting, they are usually soothing and harmless. If, however you are not sure how to react, just remain calm. Usually the parent will know just what to do. If it is an individual, ask them if you can be of assistance then just give them the space and time they need to regroup. Remember that individuals with autism are very routine driven. They just need to adjust to new environments so they can learn to try new things and gain new experiences so they can become more independent.

To make persons with autism feel more at ease about trying to communicate, consider the following:

  • Speak in simple, short phrases
  • Speak slowly
  • Do not raise your voice; the individual may be sensitive to loud noises
  • Get down to a child's level
  • Use language that is easy to understand
  • Use concrete language, as they often take words literally
  • Give simple choices
  • Repeat what they have said so they know they were heard
  • Be positive and smile

To make persons with autism feel more comfortable in social situations, consider the following:

  • Try to make eye contact; even if the individual doesn't
  • Try to keep appropriate boundaries; even if the person stands too close or far away
  • Avoid making physical contact with the individual; he/she may be sensitive to touch
  • The person may talk about a topic that interests him/her; even if it has nothing to do with the current situation
  • The individual may abruptly end the conversation; don't be offended, it isn't personal.
  • The person may exhibit unusual behaviors; hand-flapping, foot-tapping, hair-stroking, hand-wringing
  • Acknowledge the child's or individual's autism identification. Example: "I like your lanyard!"
  • Offer an autism identification sticker to alert staff and customers to be understanding of individual's behaviors and special needs.
  • Use simple and direct language when talking to an individual with autism.
  • Allow extra time for an individual with autism to process and respond to a question.
  • Remember that a person with autism may understand what you say, even if they are non-verbal.
  • Look to caregiver for help with communication, if needed.
  • Give caregivers seating options. Booth or table? In a quieter section? Close or far from windows?
  • Ask caregiver if you can provide any other special accommodations.
  • Use picture communication cards, if available.
Autism in the Community

Families affected by autism face many challenges, but one of the most debilitating is the process of taking their loved one out in public. A simple trip to the grocery store, a nearby restaurant, movie theater or clothing store is never simple for families with autism. Individuals with autism have potential difficulties with:

  • Communication
  • Social interactions
  • Behavior
  • Change in routine
  • Overwhelmed sensory systems - sight, sound, smell, touch and taste
  • Changes in schedules that interrupt a need for routine and sameness

These challenges - either alone or in combination - can result in crying, hand-flapping, pacing, running, or other coping skills.

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