Healthy Living

Communicating with Those Who Have Autism: A Reminder for Healthcare Professionals

6. People with autism are very direct and literal. It’s best to communicate with them in the same way

It’s always best to speak directly to the patient. When asking questions, stay away from asking subjective things like “How are you?”. Instead, ask directly about “what hurts?”, or “what’s different this time that you can’t go to your regular doctor?”.

When speaking to autistic people, Sharon suggests that we speak slow and clear. This allows for plenty of time for patients to understand and form a response. 

When autistic people avoid eye contact, that doesn’t mean they aren’t listening. Autistic people are usually very uncomfortable with direct eye contact.

Avoid all metaphors! It’s best to communicate with very literal questions. Though many autistic people understand humor when they're relaxed, a stressful situation can make it difficult for them to get a joke. 

Dolls and models are not helpful when trying to communicate with autistic patients. This is they know the doll is literally not feeling any pain. It can be hard for them to understand the symbolism behind using a model or doll to represent their pain. It’s best to ask them directly where they are hurting on their own bodies. 

When asking about pain, you might have to be very direct with your physical exam. When asking whether “this hurts”, the autistic person might say “no” because it doesn't hurt when you point at the area. You might have to go one step further and actually press down before asking again.

The pain charts commonly used in hospitals can be frustrating for autistic patients. The pain scale is usually represented using diagrams of sad faces and happy faces. Autistic people have trouble understanding the meaning behind these faces.