The world has grown accustomed to see people with disabilities. The symbol for special parking for people with disabilities is a wheelchair. A white cane designates a person who can’t see. A service dog vest explains why some people with disabilities have their dogs in public places which generally exclude dogs.

And then there’s… autism. No facial features define autism. No hearing aids, wheelchairs, or canes. People with autism generally look just like people without autism.

So how can you know whether a person has autism?

Some people with autism may use a tablet for communication. Some may be verbal, but not respond in a typical manner – for example, instead of engaging in a typical two-way conversation, they may repeat phrases, butt into a conversation, or not respond to attempts to redirect the conversation. Some may only be able to communicate verbally while avoiding eye contact.

Certain behaviors may suggest autism. Stimming, a repetitive behavior such as hand-flapping, rocking back and forth, or pacing, is common in autism. A negative reaction to a sudden change of routine may be symptomatic of autism. Obsessive interest in unusual subjects, such as water meters, volcanoes or characters in a specific book may suggest autism.

Techniques used to work with people with autism generally work for everyone. The converse is not true: many techniques which work well for people without autism may not work at all for persons with autism. Thus, if in doubt, use the approaches most helpful for people with autism.

What kind of techniques work for autism? Simplify communications. Instead of giving 5 verbal instructions, give 2. If possible, make the instructions written rather than verbal. Allow extra time between responses. For example, when asking a question, you may be accustomed to someone responding within 2 seconds. But if the person needs extra time to process the question and then formulate a response, the response may not come for 20 seconds. If you attempt to speed things up, “Come on, give me an answer!”, you may find that your additional comment actually slows down the response, as this is one additional communication to be processed. Patience is key.

When possible, let the person who may be on the autism spectrum set the pace. It likely will be easier for the person without autism to adapt than for the person with autism.

nonPareil Institute is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit with a mission of building better futures for adults with autism. For more information, visit