How to Help an Autistic Family Member

Four Parts:Talking To ThemSchedules and ListsSensory Differences and Special InterestsSafety, Understanding, and Love

Living with an autistic family member can be a confusing experience. This article will try to help you better understand the family member and their needs.

Part 1
Talking To Them

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    Assume that they are competent and intelligent. A girl who doesn't talk and constantly flaps her arms may still be very capable of understanding what you are saying. Even if your loved one can't understand you, they still appreciate your confidence and trust in them.
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    Speak clearly to help them understand. Be clear about your thoughts and feelings, and give occasional pauses so they have time to think and consider how to respond. Avoid exaggeration if they don't understand figurative speech well.
    • Don't force them to make eye contact or stop stimming when they listen. This can make it very difficult for them to concentrate.
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    Make sure that you have their attention before you launch into something important. If they are "zoned out," they might not realize that you want to talk, and might not hear a word you say. Say their name, and see that they look up or acknowledge you before you begin to talk.
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    Remember that you're not the only one getting frustrated. Autistic people don't "do it on purpose", and they can't help many of their idiosyncrasies. They're not trying to annoy you or being intentionally difficult. They're doing the best they can with what they have, just like you are.
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    Don't get mad at them for their communication attempts. Some autistic people love to talk passionately about their special interests, or need to ask lots of questions before they feel that they understand. Usually, persistent questioning is an attempt to bond with you—they're hoping that you'll open up and they want to listen.
    • If you are feeling drained, or need to do something else, just politely explain that you are tired, or you need to go do something else. You have a right to set boundaries.
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    Let them stim while they talk to you. This can help them concentrate and stay calm. If their stimming is extremely distracting (e.g. their pacing is making you dizzy), ask them to switch to a different stim (e.g. rocking in a rocking chair while knitting).
    • For their hands, try providing stress balls, tangles, fidget toys, and craft materials such as beads or yarn.
    • Active people may sit better on rocking chairs or exercise balls.

Part 2
Schedules and Lists

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    Make lists. Some autistic people struggle to remember to do the most mundane things. Even a teenager or adult may benefit from having a list of things to do every morning, like "brush your teeth", "take a shower", et cetera.
    • Consider adding pictures to the list, especially if the person is young or has limited reading skills.
    • The list can be hidden in a drawer if the person is embarrassed by needing it.
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    Make a schedule. Include everything that goes on in a day. If the person is school-aged, include things like "leave for school", "get home from school", "do homework", "eat a snack", et cetera. Be sure to include free time!
    • Laminate the schedule so that you can write temporary changes with a marker. For example, write when somebody comes to visit, or when school is on vacation.
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    Handle changes with care. They can feel very disorienting and upsetting to autistic people, so introducing them gently is important. Give them as much time as possible to get used to it and understand it.
    • If a last-minute change must be made, write it on the schedule in dry-erase pen as soon as possible.
    • Give them plenty of time to adjust and prepare for a change. Giving them multiple reminders will help them be emotionally ready.
    • Don't plan surprises, even ones you that you think would be fun. Avoid surprise parties. Tell the autistic person if you plan to take them out to a restaurant, attend a carnival, or anything that's not routine for them.
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    Create a weekly schedule to help the person visualize weekly events. This helps them see how today will be different from yesterday, especially from the weekends to weekdays.
    • If there are things that happen less than daily, remind the person of them the night before, again in the morning, and again if possible shortly before the event. This includes sports practices, math tournaments, and music or dance lessons.
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    Try to keep each day similar to the rest. For example, if the person has a baseball practice one day, plan something every day at that time. That way, the person won't be used to being home and having free time or studying at the time they go to baseball the one day.

Part 3
Sensory Differences and Special Interests

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    Discuss sensory overload and meltdown management strategies ahead of time. Get together with the autistic person and brainstorm ways to make group outings more fun for everyone. This should include...
    • Minimizing upsetting or painful stimuli
    • Avoiding negative stimuli
    • How to escape from an overwhelming situation
    • Self-calming strategies (deep breaths, counting, taking a break, etc.)
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    Listen to them when they tell you that something hurts or is difficult. A sweater that feels slightly scratchy wool to you could feel like a swarm of angry fire ants to them. Always try to accommodate their needs—turn down the volume, go somewhere else, or give them earplugs and white noise so they feel okay.
    • Never say "you can deal with it" or "it can't hurt that much." This teaches them to deny the fact that they are uncomfortable or in pain. This can be dangerous when they have a tangible medical problem, but end up suffering in silence, because they think that it must be nothing—that's what they were told when they had sensory issues that hurt just as much.
    • Encourage to try things that are just slightly out of their comfort zone. For example, offer to add a tiny bit of spice to their favorite meal, to help them adjust to eating spicier foods. Keep it playful, and let them back out of it whenever they want. This helps their brain learn to process it, and it introduces new things in a safe and nonthreatening way.
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    Give them plenty of exercise and time outdoors. The exercise will give them a way to channel their extra energy, and help with sleeping trouble. The process of exploring the outdoors will introduce them to sensory stimuli in a fun way, which will help them with sensory processing issues.
    • Some autistic people feel much calmer and more focused if they swing for 15 minutes every day.
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    Make time for their special interests. Listen to them talk about it once in a while (e.g. the conversation on the car ride home can be about cats). Help them pick out books and movies from the library that feature their interests. Encouraging their passions will help build their self-esteem and focus, and teach them skills that could later result in a very successful career.
    • Consider this an opportunity to learn more about your child and practice your active listening skills.
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    Teach them to speak about their interests in moderation. Emphasize that it is okay to talk about their interest, and they don't need to feel ashamed or afraid of doing so. Discuss moderation and flexibility as goals. Model appropriate conversation skills and help them learn to understand boundaries.
    • It is okay to set boundaries and say "I'm a little tired out right now and need some alone time" or "I need to go do my homework now."
    • You can also politely change the subject if it's been a while. For example, "I'd like to talk about something else now. It's very nice to discuss computers with you, but I'm getting a little tired of it for now, so I'd like to change the subject. How was your day at school?"

Part 4
Safety, Understanding, and Love

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    Stay with them. Some autistic children will wander off or leave the house. If you're in a crowded place like an amusement park, hold their hand or keep them in your sight. For children at home, lock the door with a deadbolt higher than they can reach.
    • Discuss safety in public places with them.
    • Talk with them about what to do if they feel upset or need you. Teach them to go to their calming down corner instead of leaving the building, and to call you or tell an adult instead of wandering off to go find you.
    • If they tend to wander, then consider making them a bracelet with your home address and phone number, so people can contact you if they find your child.
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    Give the autistic person plenty of downtime. Autistic people are at higher risk of developing anxiety disorders, so it's important that they feel rested and balanced. Let them engage in their special interests, read books or play with toys on the floor, run around outside, and spend time doing quiet and relaxing activities. This will help prevent meltdowns, and increase their coping skills.
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    Build a team of caring adults to help your child learn and grow. Network with therapists, teachers, and special education teachers.
    • If your family member is in school, talk to their teachers before the year starts, and explain their special need.
    • If the autistic person is afraid of a particular adult, or hates attending a specific therapy, cut contact. Some therapists use harmful restraint and seclusion tactics, silence stimming, or undermine the child's autonomy. The person's emotional health will be better if you quit right away.
    • If you wouldn't feel comfortable with a certain therapy being done to a non-autistic child, don't do it to an autistic child.
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    Find support groups, for both the family member and yourself. Your family member can meet other autistic people and share coping strategies, while you can learn tips from other family members.
    • Beware of anti-autism groups, which tend to lure parents with an ideology of martyrdom and treat autism like a scourge to be eliminated. This is harmful to the child, because it treats them like a project, burden, or list of behaviors, instead of a worthwhile human being. The autistic community considers some of these groups to be hate groups, and organizes campaigns against them.
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    Try to learn as much about autism as you can. The autism community online is a good place to start. Look up organizations run by autistic people, and autistic bloggers who share their stories. The hashtags #askanautistic and #actuallyautistic are good ways to find people on the spectrum.
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    Appreciate their quirks. Autism is a part of who they are, and a part of who they'll always be. It comes with plenty of challenges, but also idiosyncrasies—the way they flap their hands when they're happy to see you, their openness about their thoughts, or their quirky sense of humor. Learn to see their strengths and positive traits.
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    Love and accept them. They are doing their best, and a disability does not make them an incomplete human being or a puzzle that's missing some pieces. Your unconditional love is what they need the most.


  • Don't reel off a list of tasks, because it may be difficult for the autistic person to remember everything at once. If a child had to put something on the table, turn off the TV, then put on shoes; remind about the TV after the table task, and remind them to put on shoes after turning off the TV. People with ASD have marvelous minds, but can forget to do the simplest tasks.
  • Don't overreact. Learn to take things in your stride
  • Even if you find a peer who is also autistic, there's no guarantee that the two will get along. With that said, don't be afraid to introduce them - they may well become best friends!
  • Remember that their disability is not their fault. Don't blame them for being autistic.


  • Never stop someone from stimming. This robs them of an important coping strategy, and hurts their self-esteem.
  • Autistic people melt down sometimes. This is part of life, and it is very frustrating for both people nearby and the autistic person, who can't stop the meltdown. Don't punish the person for it—instead, escort them to a quiet place. When they feel better, discuss what went wrong, so everyone can be better prepared in the future.

Article Info

Categories: Interacting with Autistic People | Raising Children with Special Needs