Tips for Talking to Adults on the Autism Spectrum

Categories: ASD and DD, Adult-focused

By Margaret Walsh, M.A., BCBA

Do you have a family member, a neighbor, a co-worker, a classmate, or a gym buddy who is on the autism spectrum? If so, you may find that it can be challenging, at times, to communicate clearly with this individual. While no two people with autism have the same language and social skills, the following guidelines from experts in the field can help ensure your conversations go as smoothly as possible.
1. Address him or her as you would any other adult, not a child. Do not assume that this person has limited cognitive skills. An individual’s disability may be more language-based and not related to his or her ability to comprehend the content of the conversation. In other words, s/he may understand every word you say, but may have difficulty responding verbally.
2. Avoid using words or phrases that are too familiar or personal. For example, words like “honey” or “sweetie,” or “cutie,” can come across as demeaning or disrespectful to anyone, but particularly to someone working to establish his or her independence. Save these terms of endearment for close friends and family members.
3. Say what you mean. When interacting with an adult with autism, be literal, clear, and concise. Avoid the use of slang, nuance, and sarcasm. These forms of communication may be confusing and not easily understood by a person on the autism spectrum.
4. Take time to listen. Being an active listener is an important skill when interacting with adults with ASD. Taking the time to listen lets them know that you care and support them. If you do not understand what the person is saying, ask more questions to clarify what he or she is trying to convey.
5. If you ask a question, wait for a response. If someone doesn’t respond immediately to your question, do not assume they haven’t heard or understood you. Just like typical adults, individuals with autism or other special needs sometimes need a little more time to absorb and process information before giving you their response.
6. Provide meaningful feedback. Some adults with ASD may unknowingly communicate inappropriately. Be prepared to provide specific feedback about what in the conversation was inappropriate. Providing feedback that is honest, non-judgmental, and clear can help someone with ASD learn to safely navigate complex social interactions.
7. Don’t speak as if the person is not in the room. In a group setting with family members, caregivers, teachers, or others, do not talk about this person as if he or she were not in the room. It is easy to be drawn into this trap – especially if others are talking about this person in his or her presence. By modeling appropriate behavior, you can help others learn how to be more supportive of adults with ASD.
It is important for those of us who are family members, friends, and advocates of individuals who have ASD to recognize and respect them as adults and to help them experience as much self-esteem and achieve as much independence as possible.

Margaret Walsh, M.A., BCBA, is the Clinical Director for the Western Massachusetts division of the May Center for Adult Services. She can be contacted in West Springfield at 413-734-0300 (ext. 261) or at

About May Institute
May Institute is a nonprofit organization that is a national leader in the field of applied behavior analysis and evidence-based interventions, serving autistic individuals and individuals with other developmental disabilities, brain injury, neurobehavioral disorders, and other special needs. Founded nearly 70 years ago, we provide a wide range of exceptional educational and rehabilitative services across the lifespan. For more information, call 800.778.7601 or visit