Understanding autism

Discover how we can all effect change to empower families/whānau and those living with autism.

Browse this section for tips on important aspects for understanding and living with autism.

Discover how we can all effect change to empower families/whānau and those living with autism.

Understanding autism for

01. Relationships

No matter where a person sits on the vast spectrum of neurodiversity, it is part of human nature to need friends, someone who knows and understands us, who can share in highs and lows.

The feeling of social connectedness and support has been shown to improve health on all levels, protecting against depression, counteracting cognitive decline, and improving physical health. However, dating, friendships, and relationships can be a tricky subject to navigate at the best of times. For autistic adults, these things can be even more challenging.

While some happily make use of internet forums and online dating or friendship sites, others may feel uncomfortable with this type of interaction due to the possibility of misunderstandings and the lack of real, authentic conversation.

A shared interest may provide an alternative opportunity to find like-minded people. Make a list of things you like to do, and then decide if you would like to do any of them with a companion. Once you have identified possible activities, search online for groups who share your interest. The website meetup.com is a good place to start, offering a wide variety of groups, including book and film clubs, Sci-Fi, spy games, hiking, philosophy, cooking, writing, music, and much more. You can also easily set up your own special interest group if it doesn’t already exist in your area. Another safe way to meet people can be attending evening classes at your local Community College, where you will have the benefit of an experienced tutor who can provide structure to the activity and make sure everyone gets to be involved.

In some areas, Autism New Zealand holds adult social groups, which are casual get-togethers providing an opportunity to share stories and meet others. We have had several people make new friends in these get-togethers and form their own private groups as a result. We can also refer to existing social networks within regions.

02. Employment

Autistic adults have much to offer a workplace; yet, only 32% are in paid work compared to 80% non-disabled people.

This is due to a wide variety of complex issues, including disadvantages in the application process due to communication differences, employer bias, and lack of confidence or anxiety after a previous negative experience.

If you are from Auckland, see below details for the Autism New Zealand Employment Support Programme, however if you are outside of Auckland, other Supported Employment Organisations may be able to assist (Google *your city* + Supported Employment) like Workbridge, Emerge or contact your Autism New Zealand branch for local knowledge. 

Some other ideas to get you started:

Volunteering

In order to increase your chances of finding paid employment, it is always a good idea to get some experience through volunteering.

Volunteering is a great way for you to ease into an employment routine gently, obtain professional references or a proven track record of reliability and skill. It can also boost your confidence and help you feel better about yourself, just by getting out of the house and doing something to make a difference.

Being seen in the community as doing something worthwhile or altruistic can also open doors to networking opportunities. It can be a perfect conversation starter, which you could use to explain that you are currently unemployed, but wanting to do something useful while you are looking for work.

Google volunteering + *your city* to find organisations who coordinate volunteer placements, or contact a company you like to offer your time.

Learn more skills for free

Many tertiary education and vocational training providers offer free courses for youth up to 19 years via the Youth Guarantee programme. Other training programmes for sought-after professions are offered at Zero Fees regardless of the age of the learner, such as the National Certificate in Health, Disability and Aged Care (Foundation Skills) at Futureskills.  For those who don't do well in a classroom setting and prefer to learn on their own, Open Polytech and the Southern Institute of Technology offer a wide range of distance learning courses up to postgraduate level at Zero Fees.

If formal tertiary education sounds like too much of a commitment, even taking an inexpensive night class at your local Community College can be a way of getting an edge over other applicants.

Keeping your options open

There is a fair amount of literature on employment support for autistic people, and most authors include a list of professions they deem suitable or unsuitable. By their very nature these lists tend to be simplistic, often focusing on stereotypical proficiencies: jobs that require accuracy and focus, are repetitive, technical, or deal with animals and nature. Other authors build their recommendations on presumed special skills or talents.

Ask a trusted friend or parent for input, but don’t let a list tell you what you can and cannot do. Find out what you like and what you are good at — then go for that.

Auckland Employment Support Programme

Ministry of Social Development funding now allows Autism New Zealand to offer an employment support service in its Auckland branch. Managed by an experienced staff member who understands the challenges and opportunities autism can present, the service focuses on pre-employment coaching and in-work support for the employee and the employer. It is specifically designed to provide the time and support needed to find employment that is suitable, meaningful and long-term allowing opportunities for further development.

The employment service includes:

  • identification of realistic career options
  • creation of a step-by-step plan to gain employment
  • creation of a targeted CV and cover letters
  • practical job search skills
  • assistance in making the first approach to employers
  • interview practice and interview support
  • job-coaching
  • autism awareness training for employers of participants in the service

Jonathan Ball, who used Autism New Zealand’s employment support service to find work, speaks passionately about how his job has changed his outlook on life. You can watch the video here.

In order to be eligible for this service, job seekers should:

  • Have a formal (written) ASD diagnosis, and
  • Be on a main benefit from WINZ, and
  • Be willing to work a minimum of 15 hours per week in a mainstream workplace.

Further information
Autism New Zealand's Employment Support Facilitator employment@autismnz.org.nz.

For those wanting some inspiration to strike out on their own, the following book is highly recommended:
Simone, R. (2010). Asperger’s on the Job. Arlington, TX: Future Horizons

You may also find these books helpful:

Carley, M. J. (2016). Unemployed on the Autism Spectrum. How to Cope Productively with the Effects of Unemployment and Jobhunt with Confidence. London, UK: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Saperstein, J. A. (2014). Getting a Life with Asperger’s. Lessons Learned on the Bumpy Road to Adulthood. New York, NY: Perigree (Penguin Group)

03. Supports

Support with living costs - Work and Income (WINZ)

Your local WINZ office is the first point of contact for financial support. You may be eligible for a range of payments and allowances, including:   

  • Disability Allowance (which can include financial support to access counselling and cover other medical expenses)

  • Supported Living Payment (which is meant to cover your living expenses, but does not oblige you to look for work or have frequent meetings with your case worker)

  • Accommodation Supplement (which helps with paying for rent or board) 

Extra supports - Needs Assessment and Service Coordination (NASC)

As of April 2014, people diagnosed with ASD are eligible to access the full range of disability support services. One of the most useful of these for autistic adults may be Individualised Funding (IF), which is intended to give eligible people more choice in how they are supported, allowing you to employ your own support workers and giving you a say in how your supports should be used. IF and most other disability support services are accessed through a Needs Assessment and Service Coordination (NASC) agency.

They will conduct a needs assessment to determine what kind of services you can receive, and they also refer people to appropriate service providers and manage payments.

For a more detailed description of NASC Needs Assessments and Services, please refer to the Ministry of Health website

04. Taking care of yourself

Good mental health and well-being are key aspects of the way that we live, work and play. Autistic people may experience higher mental health issues and can have lower resilience to stress.

According to the DSM-5, “about 70% of individuals with autism spectrum disorder may have one comorbid mental disorder, and 40% may have two or more comorbid mental disorders.” (American Psychiatric Association, 2013, p.58). Depression and anxiety disorders are the most common given the painful environmental experiences autistic people may experience. Heightened sensitivity, bullying, loneliness, and different neurological structures can all contribute to being more vulnerable to mental illness.  

Only a qualified medical professional can make a diagnosis and initiate treatment, but online self-tests for depression and anxiety can help you decide whether or not you should raise the question with your GP.

Once you have a diagnosis, Work and Income (WINZ) may be able to help pay for counselling or medication if necessary.  

If you already have a diagnosis or are on medication but feel no improvement, bring this up with your psychologist, psychiatrist or doctor as they might want to revise your treatment strategy. 

Physical health

Physical self-care can be challenging for autistic adults because of motor or sensory difficulties.

Physical activity

Sensory difficulties, social anxiety, or fine motor difficulties can make it daunting for us to exercise in common settings such as the gym, group fitness or yoga classes. These options often present other obstacles making them inaccessible.

Physical activity is important for good health, the most important thing is to find something that you enjoy, provides routine and can easily be incorporated in to your lifestyle.

Other options you could try following online workouts, walking instead of driving or using public transport, or movement based video games.

Sleep

Sleep disorders are common in those on the autism spectrum. A good quality sleep is essential for everyone's health and well-being.

Ways to improve your sleep might include establishing a routine such as having a bath and going to bed at the same time each night. Other tips include using a weighted blanket, staying away from screens, and avoiding caffeine and alcohol.

Healthy eating

Sensory issues may limit the range of food options therefore it is important to find alternative ways to have a varied and balanced diet. You could try experimenting with changing the texture of food or disguising flavours with something you like.

If you are trying to avoid a particular food or need to reduce your intake, it’s a good idea to replace it with a healthy alternative, as the food item may be part of a routine and often can’t just be dropped without a replacement.

It's important to always consult with a qualified nutritionist before making any drastic changes to your diet.

Need help or advice? We are here to help.