Hunter is a four-year-old boy who loves books, trucks, and cartoons. His mom is worried because he plays alone at preschool, and it’s hard for him to hold a baseball bat or write his name.
Sarah is 24. She knows every detail of every superhero movie produced by Marvel Studios and can quote scenes verbatim. Change is hard for her, and she physically freezes when plans shift unexpectedly. She memorizes scripts for events like going to the grocery store and meeting someone new. She carries a card with identifying information in case she has an emergency and becomes mute.
Samuel is five. His curious brown eyes scan his surroundings for something new to learn, but he avoids eye contact. He gets overwhelmed by loud sounds, bright lights, and new situations, covering his ears and screaming when it all feels like too much. Sometimes his parents choose to just stay home, because they worry that if they go out, something might trigger him. They worry about the inevitable judgmental looks from others who assume they don’t know how to parent their child.
Jacob is 20. He’s at college on a full academic scholarship and dreams of changing the world, but he’s always felt as though he doesn’t fit in. He suffers from crippling anxiety and is constantly worried he’ll do or say something wrong. He often mimics the phrases and facial expressions of his peers, trying to blend in.
Each of these individuals has autism spectrum disorder (ASD), defined by the American Psychiatric Association as “a complex developmental condition involving persistent challenges with social communication, restricted interests, and repetitive behavior.”¹
A key component to this disorder is the word spectrum, as individuals with ASD exhibit a wide variety of traits and can differ greatly in the amount of support needed. Some, like Samuel, have what many people would consider to be classic autistic traits. A person with classic autistic traits tends to be diagnosed early in life and often receives a lot of support. Others, like Jacob, may go undiagnosed for years because their symptoms aren’t as obvious. People like Jacob can suffer from shame and self-hatred, because they blame themselves for how hard it is for them to connect with others.
Autism affects one in 54 children in the United States and 2.2 percent of the adult population.² It is a complex disorder that can lead to relational, mental, and emotional difficulties. So how can we come alongside individuals with ASD and their families?
Seek to Understand
Autistic individuals often feel misunderstood. Their direct communication can be interpreted as rudeness. Social withdrawal due to sensory overload can be seen as unfriendliness. Hyperfocus on a specific subject can be seen as obsessive or quirky. Stimming behaviors, like hand flapping or spinning, can be viewed by others as “weird.”
Parents of children with autism feel misunderstood too. What might look like their child throwing a tantrum is actually a sensory meltdown, and parents feel judged for what others might view as a lack of discipline.
You can’t help what you don’t understand, so when it comes to engaging with autistic individuals, be curious. Seek to understand, not judge. Ask autistic individuals and their families what it’s like in their world and in their home, and ask how you can help.
One of the most challenging parts of ASD is the isolation autistic individuals and their families may experience. People with ASD often long for connection but find it difficult to make that happen. Initiate playdates with families that have an autistic child. Invite them over for dinner. Encourage your children to befriend autistic children, and explain some of the differences they might experience in that friendship so they’ll show compassion and acceptance. And remember, this is not just a lesson for children. Engage with autistic adults you may know or encounter. Befriend and support caregivers when possible.
Be Willing to Adjust
Keivan Stassun, parent of an autistic child and director of the Frist Center for Autism and Innovation at Vanderbilt University, said, “I would not change my son for the world, so I will change the world for my son.”³
To support autistic individuals and their families, be willing to adjust expectations and protocols. Encourage your church to provide quiet rooms, noise-canceling headphones, and sensory kits. Schedule a playdate for your child and an autistic child, but ask his or her parents what the best environment for that playdate would be. Be gracious if the autistic child doesn’t play with your child or if the parents need to end the playdate early because their child is overwhelmed.
The world can be a difficult, lonely place for autistic people. It can be an isolating place for their families. Kindness, understanding, and intentionality can go a long way to not only ease their difficulties but to also gain the blessing that these unique, wonderful individuals can be in your life.
Jennifer Phillips is a counselor at Restore Ministries in Birmingham, Alabama. She is also the author of Bringing Lucy Home and Hope When It’s Hard, as well as the coauthor of Unhitching from the Crazy Train: Finding Rest in a World You Can’t Control. She is a wife and mother of four and loves reading great books, writing, and spending time with her family.
¹“What Is Autism Spectrum Disorder?” American Psychiatric Association, accessed November 7, 2022, https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/autism/what-is-autism-spectrum-disorder.
²Eric Garcia, We’re Not Broken: Changing the Autism Conversation (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2021), xv.
Disclaimer: The information shared on this page is not meant to diagnose or treat a mental health condition. We encourage you to follow up with your health-care provider and seek a mental health professional for individual consultation and care.