Supporting an autistic person

Being in a supportive environment makes a big difference to an autistic person’s wellbeing and quality of life.

Autism does not always mean that a person will need additional support to work, have relationships, or enjoy hobbies. But, many autistic people do need additional understanding. This can help them overcome the challenges caused by having autistic traits in a society where most people don’t have them.

Every autistic person has different needs. Some autistic people might need more support than others to live the lives they want to lead.

The social model of disability

The social model of disability is a way of looking at the world that treats the difficulties disabled people experience as being caused by barriers in society, rather than the disabilities themselves. These barriers can be:

  • physical – for example, buildings not having accessible toilets
  • caused by people’s attitudes – for example, others assuming someone is lying because they’re not making eye contact

The social model of disability can be a helpful way of considering the difficulties someone faces, and how to adapt their environment so it works for them.

Learn more about the social model of disability

The Equality Act (2010)

Autism is legally recognised as a disability. This gives autistic people protection under the Equality Act (2010). This means that schools and employers are required to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ to ensure autistic people are supported in their environment and able to learn or work.

Learn more about the Equality Act (2010)

Creating a supportive environment

Environment can have a big impact on autistic people’s quality of life. There are ways you can change and improve your environment to make it as comfortable and supportive as possible for an autistic person.

Even small changes can have a big positive impact for an autistic person if they are the right changes. The best person to tell you about what changes will be most helpful is the autistic person themselves. This may be through words. But, an autistic person who finds language challenging may choose to communicate through writing, drawing, or their behaviour.

Common changes to an environment that can help autistic people include:

sensory changes

For example:

  • being given a quiet space to work
  • being allowed to wear headphones
  • being able to use sensory toys like fidget spinners
  • being allowed to make noises while working
communication changes

For example:

  • using email or apps to communicate
  • using very clear language
  • allowing additional time to ask questions
  • using visual communication like photos, pictures or diagrams as well as written words

For example:

  • keeping to a regular routine
  • giving warning of any changes as far in advance as possible
  • introducing changes gradually

Every autistic person is likely to benefit from different changes. The best way to find the right ones is to ask the autistic person, or in the case of a child, their parents or caregivers.

Learn more about autism from autistic people

Support options for family members

It can sometimes be difficult for a non-autistic person to understand and support an autistic family member. This could be for many reasons. For example you might find it difficult if your family member’s communication style or sensory needs are different.

Read more information and advice on support for family members of autistic people

You may also be able to get information about local groups and resources from:

  • the health and education professionals involved with your family member
  • Citizens Advice Scotland
  • your GP

Support options for autistic people

Depending on what’s offered by your NHS board and local organisations, there are different types of support available for autistic people.

Possible support includes:

  • help with communicating, both for yourself and the autistic person in your life, so you can understand each other better
  • groups for autistic people and their loved ones to share experiences and advice
  • sensory assessments and support with an occupational therapist to help find ways of managing and improving their environment and how they experience the world

Read more about strategies to help support an autistic person

Psychological therapies

Psychological therapies can help to manage conditions like anxiety, which can be linked to autism. They’re not a treatment for autism itself.

The difficulties autistic people can experience in daily life, mean that they might want support for other conditions. These could include:

Psychological therapies like cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) are often used to treat depression, anxiety, and sleep problems. These therapies are used for many people, but they may need to be adapted to work with autistic people.

Intervention options

Interventions that aim to ‘train out’ behaviours (like repetitive movements) or force autistic people to behave like non-autistic people are unethical. They are often harmful.

Learn about avoiding harmful and unhelpful therapies for autism

Coping with meltdowns and shutdowns

Sometimes an autistic person can become overwhelmed. This happens when:

  • a situation is too much to cope with due to sensory input (things you see, hear, feel, smell or taste)
  • they’ve been asked to do things that cause stress or distress

When an autistic person becomes overwhelmed and is not able to use or benefit from their coping strategies, they might have ‘meltdowns’ or ‘shutdowns’.

It’s important to be aware that a meltdown isn’t a tantrum. A tantrum is something that can be controlled, for example those that happen because a child is denied something they want. A meltdown or shutdown isn’t something an autistic person can control. It’s caused by being overwhelmed.

During a meltdown, an autistic person might try to make themselves feel less overwhelmed. They might try and:

  • remove themselves from the situation and find a place that feels safe for them
  • remove something overwhelming from the environment, like turning off noise or lights or asking people to give them space

During a shutdown, an autistic person might try to block everything out. This means they may not respond to anything or anyone around them.

Read more about meltdowns

Coping with challenging behaviour

Like everyone else, sometimes when autistic people are in an environment that doesn’t suit them, they can become distressed. If this happens and the person is not able to communicate or resolve their distress, they might show behaviours that other people find challenging.

Behaviour that people can find challenging includes:

  • being destructive – for example, breaking things
  • being disruptive – for example, making noise in class or throwing things
  • self-harm
  • aggression

Behaviour that is unusual, but does not cause harm to anyone or interfere with others, is not challenging behaviour. For example, someone flapping and humming in a supermarket might be unusual, but it’s not harmful, destructive, and it does not stop others from shopping.

It’s important to remember that all behaviour is a form of communication. While some behaviours can be challenging for other people, it’s often a result of distress or frustration. This is particularly true if an autistic person has difficulty with communicating.

Behaviour that challenges others usually happens when someone is trying to get their needs met, and does not have any other way to do so. It’s not ‘bad’ behaviour, or intended to cause harm. This kind of behaviour is most common in those who find it harder to be understood, like people with a learning disability.

Behaviour that challenges can also be caused by:

  • trying to meet sensory needs – for example, wanting to do something because it feels nice, like rubbing soaps and creams all over themselves and the walls
  • wanting something – for example, being hungry or wanting to play with a toy
  • needing assistance or attention – for example, because they’re bored or want help with a project at school
  • trying to escape an environment or the people around them, but doing so in a way that can be dangerous or harmful like running into the road
  • experiencing pain

You can contact your GP for further advice and support for behaviour that challenges.

Read more about dysregulated behaviour in children

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Last updated:
24 June 2024