Interacting with Autistic Children – A Guide for Charity Appearances

If you follow me on social media, you may know that I recently joined The Royal Sisterhood, a member of Costumers for a Cause.

CFAC is a local nonprofit which brings costumers together to volunteer their talents for local charities, to aid and enrich their fundraisers and other events. Dressed as princesses, superheroes, and more, we do appearances at events such as charity walks, Children’s hospital TV programming, and more.

Prior to joining The Royal Sisterhood, I was involved with another division of Costumers for a Cause, doing appearances as Superheroes/ villains, along with my husband. (I went as Beast, he would usually go as Magneto or Loki, all from the Marvel Cinematic Universe.)

At a TRS meeting yesterday, my friend Sara did a great presentation on gender inclusiveness while doing charity appearances. With an Autism Walk coming up, I asked if the group had ever discussed interacting with Autistic children. I have seen some pretty bizarre things with regards to Neurotypicals interacting with Autistics, after all.

After sharing a few thoughts on the matter, I was asked to write up a bit of a guide. I went home, brainstormed with my husband, and here we are! While this was written specifically for a group of Princesses, we thought that it was good advice for those doing charity appearances in general, so decided to post it here.

All dressed up as “The Fairy Godmother”,
prior to a charity appearance.

Interacting with an Autistic Child

1. Don’t force eye contact.

Eye contact can feel very threatening/intimidating to some, and far too intimate to others. If it’s obvious they don’t want to make eye contact, talk to their shoulder or their chin. Just because they’re not looking at you, doesn’t mean they’re not looking at you… if that makes sense. Don’t take it personally if they don’t want to look you in the face.

2. Do not touch – even a fist bump or high five – without asking first.

Don’t take it personally if they don’t want to touch you, or shy away from you physically.

3. Talk to the autistic child first, not their parent.

For example, ask the child if they want a hug, not the adult if it’s OK. If it turns out that the child needs the adult to communicate for them, the adult will step in. Asking the adult first is a sore point in the community.

4. Be mindful of sensory issues.

Avoid or go very light on perfume, etc when attending an Autistic event. Be mindful of the fact that loud voices (loud to us, not to you!) can be very startling.

Of particular note for princess events: The high, very girly princess voice and accompanying laugh can be difficult/painful, especially in groups. If you are in a group of two or more princesses, try to keep laughter subdued.

5. Know your audience.

Autistics are very, VERY literal. There’s a fine line between staying in character, and offending the children. Many of us have no ability to suspend disbelief, and some of the things said to enhance “character” can come off as lying, or as mocking the Autistic child.

For example, if you say “I just came from Arendelle…”, an Autistic child is likely to process it something like: “Arendelle doesn’t exist. Is she making fun of me? Does she think I’m stupid? What am I supposed to say to that?”.

It can be very awkward and uncomfortable. If at all possible, avoid making definitive statements about the fictional world you’re portraying (I know, this is super counter-intuitive, for showing up in character). For this reason, various figures of speech can also be confusing and make things awkward.

6. Speak very clearly. Enunciate!

Many Autistics also have sensory processing disorders, which can be exacerbated by busy environments like the charity walk. When you hear EVERYTHING going on around you, it can be very hard to pick out a certain person talking, even if right in front of you.

Please don’t be offended if you’re asked to repeat something, or if you are misunderstood. Also know that many rely on reading lips, even if they don’t have a hearing problem. Try to face in their general direction when talking to them, even if eye contact is an issue.

7. Give plenty of time for a response.

Autistic children can take longer to reply than neurotypical children. If you’re sure they heard you, just have a bit of patience in waiting for a reply. They’re processing! Also, know that long pauses may feel really awkward to you, but aren’t necessarily to Autistics. Autistics can enjoy your quiet presence, and don’t necessarily need nonstop conversation. Social cues are not our strong point!

8. Ask about hobbies, BUT…

… be prepared to have your ear talked off. If you get an Autistic child talking about an area of special interest, they can go on and on. It can be hard for them to tell when the other party is not interested, or the conversation should move on. Be ready to be very, very patient!

On that point, know that when the conversation has ended, be clear that you are ending it. Don’t hint around that you have to move on, just be clear and honest that you need to meet others, etc. Again, social cues!

9. Do not take anything personally.

I’ve touched on this with a couple of other points, but it should be expanded on. For one thing, Autistics can be very frank with you. There’s not usually a lot of sugar coating, more just saying what’s on the mind. It can come off rude, but is usually not ever INTENDED to be rude. These can fall into observations or questions about physical appearance, etc. Try to roll with things, even if something hurts a bit.

10. Watch your wording.

Please avoid the use of “high functioning” or “low functioning” to describe an Autistic person. Don’t compare an Autistic to a non Autistic, or use phrases like “For an Autistic…” (“You’re so friendly/empathetic/well spoken for an Autistic”, for example). Though it likely won’t come up, it needs to be said: Don’t use “cure” language.

Additionally, know that – much like gender pronouns – How you refer to an Autistic is important. Many/most Autistic adults prefer identity-first language, ie: Autistic person, Autistic child, etc… while many non-Autistic people seem to think that person-first language is most appropriate: “Person with Autism”, “Person who has Autism”. Many of us see “with” or “who has” to be offensive, as it usually accompanies the idea of us being “inflicted” with something, that it’s something separate from us, and/or is a temporary/ “curable” thing. Autism is our Operating System, it’s who we are.

If an Autistic person tells you what their preference is – identity-first or person-first – please respect it. Also: Please don’t ever say “suffers from Autism”.

11. Tone matters.

You don’t necessarily need to mimic how the parent talks to the Autistic child. Some parents of Autistics are… less than ideal in how they treat their kids, and can talk to them like they’re babies and/or idiots. Aside from issues mentioned above (eye contact, enunciation, literal speech), you shouldn’t feel the need to talk any differently to an Autistic child, than you would a neurotypical child. As an example, nonverbal children are often looked at as stupid or lesser-than, and are frequently talked down to. The fact that they don’t speak *doesn’t* mean they don’t understand, or aren’t intelligent. Some of the most intelligent people I’ve ever known are non-verbal.

12. Know that every Autistic is different.

Some of these tips won’t apply to everyone. For some, every single one will. You will likely meet Autistic children who “pass” for neurotypical.

*****

As a bit of an aside – this isn’t so much about dealing with Autistic children, as it is a bit of information about the Autism community, culture, etc…

April is coming up, and with it… “Autism Awareness Month”. Every Autistic adult I know dreads this month, as the promotion and observance of it tends to be hugely offensive to Autistic people. I’ve written about it Here, Here, and Here. I’d encourage anyone planning to do Autism charity appearances to read through those posts.

The TL;DR:

1. Autism Speaks is a horrible organization, on so many levels. Most Autistic adults and many parents of Autistics are horrified by their campaigns and treatment of Autistics. Please consider NOT supporting A$, and look to alternative organizations. I tend to recommend Autistic Self Advocacy Network, as it is “Nothing about us, without us”

2. As an extension of #1, the puzzle piece and “Light it up blue” are very much Autism Speaks symbols, and as such are pretty offensive to a many Autistics. For more information/perspective, I recommend Goggling such things as “Don’t light it up blue”, and “Autism Speaks doesn’t speak for me”.

3. The #ActuallyAutistic tag on social media – particularly Twitter – is a good read if you’d like to hear what Autistic people have to say.

A few members of The Royal Sisterhood

Author:Marie Porter

Marie is an award winning cake artist based in Minnesota's Twin Cities. Known as much for her delicious and diverse flavor menu as for her sugar artistry, Marie's work has graced magazines and blogs around the world. Having baked and designed for brides, celebrities, and even Klingons, Marie was proud to share her wealth of baking knowledge in her two cookbooks: "The Spirited Baker" and “Evil Cake Overlord”. Marie has also authored a book about her experiences surrounding the 2011 Minneapolis tornado: "Twisted: A Minneapolis Tornado Memoir"

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