When it comes to helping others with autism, “you aut to know” I’ve learned a technique that’s simple yet seldom mentioned. Sadly enough, it might also seldom be used. That’s why this article is about choices, or more specifically, offering choices to those on the autism spectrum. Now, for those of you reading this who’re confused, here’s what I mean: Through offering choices, you can turn a variety of situations into opportunities to communicate and bond with autistic individuals, particularly those who are considered “low-functioning.” Such a method, albeit imperfect and dependent on said individual’s comprehension level, is able to bypass the innate barriers of communication and perception as well as contribute to his or her happiness overall.
Choices Convey Respect
By offering two or three options to someone on the spectrum, instead of just deciding for them ahead of time, you are showing respect. How exactly? I’m referring to respect for that person’s autonomy, dignity, and individuality—essentially speaking, their very humanity! Whether it’s something to eat, a fun activity, or a nice place to hang out, you show respect simply by allowing that person with autism to decide. Doing so can register in that person’s mind even in the smallest and subtlest of ways that others care and want him or her to be happy; the importance of which cannot be stressed enough. Remember, someone, regardless of his or her place on the spectrum, can feel ostracized and isolated, and choices can make all the difference in changing that.
Choices Convey Morality
It’s a well-known fact that people Autism Spectrum Disorder have greater difficulty regulating their emotions and can sometimes lash out to vent their frustration. In fact, for some individuals, they may not realize such actions are immoral and may find it difficult to learn otherwise. In these types of situations, reacting with force should very rarely (if ever) be necessary. Instead, one can again use choices to illustrate morality via consequences—that is, by giving two choices, one being the undesired action paired with a negative consequence and the other being the desired action (or lack of the undesired one) paired with a positive consequence. For example, last month when a teacher and I were watching an adult with low-functioning autism, we were driving to the pool when all of a sudden, he randomly hit the teacher! For whatever reason, he’d grown agitated and wanted to go home. The teacher tried to make him understand that what he did was wrong, but I could tell it wasn’t working (especially when he hit me, too!). I explained to the teacher that autism can hinder one’s ability to comprehend “If…then” statements (“If you hit, then [insert consequence here]”) and that he needed to phrase things differently. That’s when I gave two choices to the adult with autism: Hit, go home, or no hit, stay out. He chose the second one and stopped hitting us. I believe it’s not what you say but the way you say it, and using choices can say a lot to someone with autism about what’s right and wrong.
Choices Convey Different Perspectives
For many of us who have autism, empathy can be a struggle. At times, it’s hard enough trying to make sense of what goes on in our heads, but that doesn’t even compare to trying to do the same for others. Many with autism have trouble realizing, let alone understanding, that others have different points of view. What’s fine to us may upset others (and vice-versa), and this can lead to many a conflict revolving around the following conundrum: How do you make someone with autism feel empathy when he or she has problems doing so? Once again, the answer lies in offering choices. Only a minor tweak in your approach is necessary—if a negative behavior occurs, you can still give out two choices; however, instead of linking the consequences after the behavior for each choice, all you need to do is say how you feel! So, let’s go back to my last example with the autistic adult. I could have phrased things more like this: “Hit John, John sad” or “No hit John, John happy.” If need be, I could have furthermore asked “Do you want John sad? Or do you want John happy?” Since the autistic adult could tell others when he felt certain basic emotions (happiness, anger, etc.), this meant he would have known what I meant and made the proper connection. Others with autism have this exact same potential, and it’s in letting them choose that just might be what it takes.
Giving choices to those with autism can improve many scenarios. Yes, autism makes it harder to communicate for all parties involved, but it’s by no means impossible. Again, no system is perfect and my advice can only go so far. However, I know that someone needed to read this and I hope my words will make things a little clearer.
This is a thoughtful analysis of choice making. When I created the Smart Steps Mobile app, I wanted the app user (such as a student with autism) to have choices, none of which would be incorrect. It’s just a matter of choosing what fits in the situation based on resources available, timeframe, and personal preference. Decision making can be difficult and in some cases, can be a consuming task. Thanks for your thoughts.