How to Help an Autistic Person
How Not to Help an Autistic Person
Many times throughout my life, I’ve had other people give me unsolicited “help”. By “help”, I mean they took over what I was doing without asking me because I “wasn’t doing it right”, “looked confused”, or “seemed like I was struggling”. Here are three examples:
When I was cooking scrambled eggs like I’d done a thousand times before, this person waited until I walked away for a moment, then started cooking my eggs for me. They told me “You’re not paying attention. You’re going to burn them.” The eggs weren’t even close to burned.
I was once hanging a poster when someone told me I didn’t know what I was doing and that I would screw it up. They snatched the hammer and nails from me and tore the poster trying to do it themself. When I told them it was important the poster wasn’t torn and that I didn’t ask for any help, they stormed off. I finished hanging the poster straight without any problems.
When I was doing an assignment in (I believe it was) middle school, one of my group members was apparently unsatisfied with the way I was doing my share of the group project. Rather than offering help, he tried to take the assignment out of my hands and complete it for me. I gripped it hard so he couldn’t take it. He yanked and yanked, but it was futile. Eventually he let go, said something like “Fine! Do it yourself!”, and stormed off.
Neurotypicals continue to insist on “helping” (taking over), even when I say no, even when it always results in their becoming frustrated when I can’t do it their way. I used to wonder “Why do you do this to yourself? It always ends the same way. It’s like you want to be frustrated.” But now I think I understand a bit better. I think there are two main reasons why neurotypicals do this:
- Because I do things differently, I seem to them like I’m struggling even when I’m not. So their natural instinct to help kicks in.
- It makes them uncomfortable to see me, someone they think of as normal, apparently struggling to do something that “should be” a piece of cake. “Helping” is really a way to shut down my neurodiverse behavior.
How to Actually Help an Autistic Person
So what’s the right way to help an autistic person? Here are my tips:
First, accept that we may do things differently than you and your way of doing things isn’t the only right way. If you insist on forcing me to do something your way at your pace, it simply won’t get done.
Second, ask if we want help and in what way. Don’t automatically assume you know how to help. And just because I ask for your help doesn’t mean I’m giving you a blanket pass to take over.
Third, take no for an answer when autistic people decline your help and don’t take it personally. For whatever reason, some people just can’t help me. Either they don’t have the patience, they can’t resist taking over, or our personalities clash. If that’s you, I need you out of the way. Like I said, it’s not personal. Don’t blame me. Don’t blame yourself. You’re just not built for it. Not everybody is.
And lastly, unless it’s requested of you, please don’t supervise or commentate. Most of us know what it feels like to screw something up that we otherwise wouldn’t have on account of being unnecessarily supervised. I don’t need someone standing beside me interjecting only to cut themself off after they realize I’m just doing something differently, not incorrectly. I don’t need someone pointing out my every mistake. I’m plenty capable of self-correcting. If not, I will eventually figure that out and ask for help from someone who I trust to help.
There’s one more thing I want to clarify to wrap up:
Obviously there are extenuating circumstances where unsolicited neurotypical supervision and intervention are necessary, even if the autistic person doesn’t want it. Some mistakes can’t afford to be made. I’m not referring to those in this entry.
I’m talking about the unsolicited “help” we get when the consequences of failure are minor and only affect ourselves, or others to a small degree. In circumstances like that, neurotypicals need to recalibrate how they go about helping using the aforementioned advice.