May Institute

5 Ways to Support Adults on the Autism Spectrum When Engaging in Conversation


Randolph, Mass. – Even the most well-intentioned and informed adults can flounder when it comes to communicating effectively with peers, co-workers, classmates, or gym buddies on the autism spectrum. While no two individuals with autism have the same language and social skills, there a few basic courtesies that you can extend to enhance the level of comfort and understanding between you and another.

Colleagues Scott Chausse, M.Ed., Director of Vocational Services at the Todd Fournier Center for Employment Training and Community Inclusion in Massachusetts, and Teka J. Harris, M.A., BCBA, Clinical Director for the May Center for Adult Services in Western Massachusetts, team up to share five universal tips to keep communication respectful and productive for all parties.

1. Address him or her as you would an adult, not a child. Do not make assumptions about a person’s cognitive skills. An individual’s disability may be more language-based and not related to their ability to comprehend the content of the conversation. In other words, a person 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, terms like “honey,” “sweetie,” “cute,” and “adorable,” even when intended as endearments, can come across as demeaning or disrespectful to any person, but particularly to someone working to establish his or her independence.

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.

4. When asking 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 on the autism spectrum sometimes need a little more time to absorb and process information before giving you their response.

5. Don’t speak as if the person is not in the room. You may find yourself in a group setting that includes someone on the autism spectrum. As in any other social situation, do not talk about the person as if he or she is not in the room. In a group setting with family members, caregivers, teachers, or others, it is easy to be drawn into this trap. Model the appropriate behavior; this will help inform others on how to be more supportive of adults with autism in these kinds of situations.

About May Institute
Founded in 1955, May Institute has its roots in a family’s vision of enabling children with disabilities to lead the fullest lives possible. Today, May Institute provides educational, rehabilitative, and behavioral healthcare services to individuals with autism spectrum disorders and other developmental disabilities, brain injury, mental illness, and behavioral health needs. For more information, call 800.778.7601 or visit