Advice from the Spectrum: how to engage with someone who has Autism

By Alive & Well


Wendy Lawson was called ‘unteachable’ as a child. They said she was incapable of doing anything that was asked of her.

Before long, they diagnosed her as schizophrenic – which was incorrect, but she didn’t know that until decades later when she came to understand she’s on the Autism Spectrum.

Dr Wendy Lawson, PhD

Dr Wendy Lawson, PhD

These days, she’s Dr Wendy Lawson. She’s in her 50s with 4 children, 1 grandchild, 5 tertiary degrees and a PhD, and she’s one of the most inspiring presenters on Autism I’ve come across.

The first time I saw her speak was at a workshop held by Sue Larkey. (Sue’s a bit of a guru in the world of Autism for how she educates teachers, teachers’ assistants and parents, particularly about how to help people with Autism in the classroom settings in a way that’s good for all the children in the room.)

When it was Wendy’s turn to speak, the lights were dimmed and a line of white masking tape was stuck to the floor of the stage about a foot from the edge. These simple tricks addressed a couple of issues for her in an uber-practical way – the low lighting allowed for her sensory challenges, and the masking tape made it easier for her to tell where the black stage ended, and the drop to the dark carpet on the floor beneath it began.

Her presentation focused on helping others – particularly teachers and parents – understand the viewpoint from the Spectrum, and her key message was that …

Autism is a different way of seeing things, NOT a dysfunction

She uses the term “diffability” rather than “disability,” and illustrates it with fantastic insights into the confusion that the English language can cause for the very literal minds of people on the Autism Spectrum.

For example, if an exasperated teacher said to her, “Can you sit down?” she would think “Well yes, of course I can, but I don’t want to.” Or if someone pointed to something in her hand and said, “You can’t have that,” she would think they were lying, because clearly she already had it in her hand.

Wendy’s top 5 tips for encouraging participation

If you want to encourage someone with Autism to engage and participate, here’s the view from the Spectrum on how to go about it.

1. Accept my difference
I am capable of learning great things, of contributing and of loving – I just might take a little longer to get there. Give me time.

2. Use my interests to motivate me
This will encourage me to engage, use my strengths and enable more learning.

3. Show me what’s expected of me
Then I don’t need to fight for control as much. I can’t always tell what’s expected without it being clearly explained to me. Please make sure I understand.

4. Be clear in your language and communication
Find ways to show me with fewer words – e.g. try pictures instead – and remember that I am very literal. If you say “you’re on fire!” I’ll call the fire brigade. If you mean “you’re doing really well,” say that instead.

5. Let me know what’s happening
If I don’t know what’s coming next, I cope by resisting change. Visual timetables can be very helpful.

Listening to Wendy’s perspective was fascinating. It was such a valuable insight into how my son might experience the world, and her stories about non-literal language were laugh-out-loud funny. She had the entire audience eating out of her hand (which by the way, is a great example of an expression that makes no sense to the literal mind!).

There’s a lot to learn from Wendy. Have a look at her website for more information about her witty, eye-opening books, the DVDs of her presentations, and opportunities to do yourself a favour and see her speak.

How does this advice sound to you? What sort of practical strategies make a difference for your child?