"Suzy likes to be alone at recess."

"Peter is a sore loser, he has a fit every time he loses. I don't want to play with him anymore."

"All Jimmy wants to talk about is movies and play Star Wars. I don't want to play with him."

"Nobody plays with him at school … do I have to invite him to my birthday party?"

"Why is that child having a fit? He must be so spoiled!"

These are comments parents of children with autism hear all of the time from other parents, teachers and children. You know children with autism, because they go to school with your children, live on your street and are part of your communities. Yet these children have what's called "an invisible disability." This disability, where people have good intellectual skills and language skills, is a form of autism. It was formerly called Asperger Syndrome, but that term was recently eliminated by the mental health world as it was not a consistent label and failed to accurately capture the disability. At its core, people with this form of autism struggle with a social communication disability which has a profound impact on how they perceive and interact with the world. These differences can cause serious challenges and misunderstandings with "neurotypicals"- what people with autism call typically-developing children.

So what is this disability, and how can we work together to create a more inclusive and supportive environment? People with autism have tremendous strengths and have important, and often unique, skills to offer society. With the numbers of autism diagnoses skyrocketing (CDC reports 1 in 68 children have been diagnosed), it is in everyone's interest - not to speak of the right thing - to understand these differences and make the world a more responsive place to these children so that we can create a better, more inclusive world, which will appreciate and benefit from the unique perspectives and contributions that people with autism bring. We need to remember, that often the harshest form of punishment is socially isolating someone.

The increase in the incidence of autism is largely accounted for by changes in diagnosis and an improvement in identification and diagnosis. This is a good thing; it allows people who have previously struggled alone and in silence to find supportive communities, access intervention, and understand themselves rather than blame themselves. Tim Page, the former music critic for The Washington Post, wrote about his autism in a beautiful article in The New Yorker in August 2007, "the diagnosis was one of those rare clinical confirmations which are met mostly with relief. Here, finally, was an objective explanation for some of my strengths and weaknesses, the simultaneous capacity for unbroken work and all-encompassing recall, linked inextricably to a driven, uncomfortable personality. And I learned that there were others like me."

One of the hallmarks of autism, is an intense interest in something often to the exclusion of other things (remember the little boy fixated on Star Wars). This interest can become overwhelming to others, but can also become the backbone of successful careers. A little boy who has a "restricted interest" in dinosaurs is called odd. The adult is called a paleontologist. Page loves music, and he became an acclaimed music critic.

Another characteristic of autism is difficulty interpreting social cues. This comes from differences in how the brain of people with autism is "hard wired." They are seeing and noticing different things, often small details the rest of us miss. They also have difficulty with seeing and understanding non-verbal cues, both in terms of body language and tone of voice. This means they don't "see" (not that they don't care) when we are bored, annoyed or even happy. The impact of this kind of challenge is mammoth and can lead to a world of misunderstandings.

People with autism are often seen as very "rigid." But that inflexibility is adaptive and protective for them. Ari Ne'eman, a member of the President's Council on Disabilities and a leading autism activist, says, "for one thing it is an effective anti-anxiety coping mechanism. It provides order in the context of a world that is confusing and illogical for us." We also need to recognize that neurotypicals are often equally rigid. Even a slight violation of social norms causes us to criticize, condemn and shun the person.

So what can you do? First, you can understand that the challenges the person or child with autism presents are not intentional and require your understanding and support. Perhaps the best advice is to "make the implicit - explicit." Think about how complicated the social world is and how many variables there are in even a simple interaction. To facilitate understanding, use words to explain what you're thinking, rather than rely on non-verbal cues. It's OK to say, "I'm bored by that topic, can we find one we're both interested in?"Or "I really like playing this card game with you." Let's play for 10 minutes and then switch to the other game and play for 10 minutes." This gives people with autism direct, actionable information, free from nuance. Make specific plans and preview them with the child. Schedule playdates for a short time (one hour is good) and make a schedule. For example, a playdate might include snack, games (making explicit who chooses first and second and how long) and cleaning up. Help navigate areas of previous difficulty by making a Plan B for when things break down. "We're going to play this game and these are the rules. If someone breaks a rule, let's make a plan to manage it so that we can keep playing." Anticipating breakdowns can help you get ahead of them, and explicit plans help give children with autism a voice and something to rely on when they are upset.


Monica Adler Werner is the Director of the Model Asperger Program (MAP) at the Ivymount School in Rockville, MD. In that capacity she has spearheaded the development of a social learning curriculum that emphasizes problem solving, self-advocacy and self-regulation while keeping students on track academically. She also collaborates with the Center for Autism Spectrum Disorders at Children's National Medical Center to develop curricula that support the development of executive functions. She is a coauthor of "Unstuck and On Target" (Brookes, 2011) and "Solving Executive Function Challenges" (Brookes, 2014), a curriculum to enhance cognitive flexibility and problem solving in students with Asperger Syndrome. Prior to working at Ivymount, Monica co-founded of Take2 Summer Camp, a program designed to pilot the application of evidence based social skills