Straight from the Source - Jennifer Feldman: Considerations for Social Engagement Between Individuals With and Without Autism
Posted on 02/25/19 in Life Skills by Jennifer Feldman
Over the years, society has experienced increasing awareness of the autism spectrum through organizations like Milestones Autism Resources, the Autism Society, Autism Speaks, Autism Self-Advocacy Network, OCALI and others. These organizations, along with families and individuals, have worked to create public awareness of the social/relational difficulties for those on the autism spectrum. Promoting social/relational awareness is important and needed. However, there is increased need to provide insight for creating an environment of social/relational acceptance. Instead of mutual acceptance, a passive coexistence/tolerance can be a result, where neurotypicals and individuals on the autism spectrum may avoid relationships with each other. Individuals on the spectrum and neurotypical communities are often left without instruction on how to engage in relationships with each other. Unfortunately, people tend to avoid what they don't understand, including relationships with individuals who are different from them. While this is not always the case, change is deeply needed.
Many adults living in our society are or could be classified as being on the autism spectrum. Within these parameters are individuals who grew up with an array of burgeoning services available to them as children or transitional adults and those who did not. Depending on individual circumstances, there may be varying degrees of social/relational competence or lack thereof. Regardless, the social and relational difficulties experienced by those on the autism spectrum do not cease after provision of childhood services or upon entering adulthood. In fact, difficulties continue throughout adulthood. Individuals with autism would benefit from a continuity of resources that address social/relational needs across the lifespan.
Many adults on the autism spectrum have difficulties with social communications and interactions in multiple settings. Due to differences in cognitive brain structure, individuals with autism have difficulty understanding the social/relational needs of other people. Some of the resulting difficulties can include but are not limited to: applying unwritten social rules, reading social cues, inability to apply social skills across multiple settings, comprehending body language and understanding abstract or fluid concepts. Social/relational interactions are very fluid, abstract, and constantly change in expression. Most neurotypical relationships have unwritten social rules and expectations. Adults on the autism spectrum do not intuitively process or apply them. The resulting misunderstandings and rejections become very painful to endure for both parties. Consequently, navigating adult social and relational interactions becomes a burden for the individual with autism. As a result, social and relational isolation is often commonplace for adults on the spectrum.
Currently, more resources are needed that address the social/relational issues occurring between adults on the autism spectrum and neurotypical communities. Training resources and services need to be created that provide interaction strategies for all involved parties engaging in this kind of relationship. Impacted parties should be empowered to mutually engage in relationships with one another. Resources that are available focus on making individuals with autism conform to neurotypical social/relational expectations. Instead, resources can be created to promote a healthy, two-way balance of shared relational responsibility that addresses the impact from autism. To create such resources, areas of research that explore creating shared relationships between adult neurotypical communities and individuals on the autism spectrum should be developed. Adults with autism may benefit from strategies that acknowledge autonomy of the individual and individual life goals.
Neurotypical communities who engage in relationships with individuals on the autism spectrum can take proactive measure to empower shared mutual relationships. For example, neurotypical communities often assume that individuals with autism intentionally disrespect boundaries or instructions after being informed of relational needs and boundaries. More often than not, individuals with autism cannot understand nor generalize the abstract requests or instructions given to them across multiple settings. Even with concrete instructions, individuals on the spectrum may have difficulty generalizing them. When neurotypicals engage adults with autism, they can be concrete and direct about needs or boundaries. They can also provide concrete examples of how their boundaries, expectations, or instructions would apply in relevant settings. Neurotypicals can have individuals with autism restate instructions, boundaries, and provide reinforcement for them as necessary. Both parties can work together to create discrete cues, prompts, or reminders when instructions, expectations, and boundaries apply across multiple settings. When a relational mishap occurs, both parties can engage in discussion with assuming "bad behavior" on either side. We should view relational difficulties as opportunities for enhanced communication and relationships with one another.
Individuals with autism and neurotypical communities have valuable contributions to make in the lives of one another. Take time to read when people on the autism spectrum write about their experiences. Engage individuals with ASD in mutual conversation about relationship needs and expectations. It's time to begin creating the research, services, and resources that will foster shared relationships between neurotypical individuals and adults on the autism spectrum. Both communities can work together to dissolve the barriers that keep each other apart.
Jennifer Feldman currently works as a data analyst and project assistant in Akron Ohio. She previously worked for a few years as a Learning Resource Center Manager for Educational Affiliates. She holds a Bachelor of Arts and Masters Degree in Library and Information Science from the University of Akron and Kent State University respectively. Currently, Jennifer is pursing a Masters Degree to PhD specializing in Autism Spectrum Disorders and Disability/Community Inclusion from Kent State University. Prior to returning for further schooling, Jennifer was officially diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum. Jennifer hopes to enhance relational engagement between adults on the autism spectrum and neurotypical communities.