Autism & Building Trust

Learning how to build trust with the autistic people in your life, and why this is one of the most important things you can do for them

Boy smiles happily at his caregiver while they do a puzzle on the floor

The misconception that autistic people are overly trusting by nature is, like all stereotypes, a sweeping statement that is only true for some. I am not one of them.

Like most people, as a kid I readily accepted what people told me about themselves and the world without much reason or desire to question it. I desperately wanted to cling to the belief that people were reliable.

Thinking literally, misjudging situations, misunderstanding the people around me and being misunderstood by them soon brought the frightening realization that nothing was as it seemed. There was no order or consistency. There were rules, but nobody followed them. Actions hardly ever matched words.

I often missed or misread subtext, so the signs and signals that I thought I was reading from people weren’t consistent with their behaviours or emotions. It seemed as if everyone acted randomly, without warning or clues to their motives.

I was taught that even the way my body experienced the world couldn’t be trusted. Don’t be silly, that light isn’t too bright. The TV isn’t too loud, that shirt isn’t too scratchy, everyone loves parties. When you can’t even rely on yourself to interpret the world around you properly it feels like there’s no solid place to stand. Life was unpredictable and untrustworthy, which only intensified my need to find someone or something to depend on.

But putting my trust in others was incredibly hard for me to do. I regularly felt let down and betrayed. Perseveration made ‘forgive and forget’ difficult. When disagreements arose there was often confusion about what happened, whose fault it was, whether I could have avoided it. With no way to resolve or make sense of the situation, I’d just hang on to the fact that it hurt. Building walls became a defense mechanism, and I trusted nobody. Safe spaces seemed hard to find, and as a result I felt overwhelmingly vulnerable.

I still do.

If you’re one of the people in my life that has my trust, you’ll probably never understand the huge obstacles that I’ve had to climb over to get to that place. When you always feel let down, you only feel safe trusting the people who never let you down. If there’s the slightest risk of being hurt, the wall goes up. Because every transgression brings with it the cumulated hurt of a lifetime of instability. And every transgression, no matter how seemingly trivial, is proof that the wall needs to be there.

If I had to pick the one thing that’s been the most pervasive challenge for me, that’s made the most difference to my kids and is one of the most important things that you can do for your autistic friends or family, it’s building trust.

Mistrust, vulnerability and feeling unsafe are all breeding grounds for anxiety. Over time I’ve seen my kids relax immensely as the trust between us has grown, bringing with it a sense of security which has greatly reduced meltdowns and opened the way for communication.

What does it mean to build trust?

Building trust is about more than saying “You can rely on me” or “I would never hurt you”.

  • It’s understanding what that hurt looks like and where it might come from
  • It’s about being someone who feels safe, consistent and dependable
  • It’s empowering your kids to trust themselves
  • It’s supporting them to take the risk of trusting others
  • And it’s protecting them from the people who can’t, and shouldn’t, be trusted

So how can you do that with your autistic kids, family or friends?

Accept that trust might be hard

Betrayals can feel overwhelmingly huge, important and painful, so don’t use words like ‘paranoid’ or complain that they’re making a big deal out of nothing.

Learn how to make them feel safe with you

Everybody has a different idea of what trust looks like. The things that make someone feel vulnerable are not always obvious, and won’t necessarily be the same for you.

Be protective of them

This goes much further than stranger danger or making sure they wear a seatbelt. It means stopping Grandma before she pinches their cheeks. Not forcing them to do things they find scary or painful. Not sharing their secrets or telling embarrassing stories about them amongst friends. Not writing about them on your blog without their permission.

Be consistent

Act in a predictable way. If you set rules, use them (getting yelled at the tenth time you run down the hallway but not the other nine is confusing).

Be reliable

Do what you say you will. Don’t make promises unless you’re sure you can keep them. Give advance warning of changes where possible. Show up on time.

Be dependable

Always respond to requests for help. Be the one that they can count on to be a source of relief.

Be literal

Say what you mean. Your words may be the only way someone has of judging your intention, so don’t say “We’ll only stay ten minutes” unless you’re prepared to leave in ten minutes.

Be honest

Honesty is one of the cornerstones of trust, and yes that does include white lies. Kids are listening when you tell your friend you’d love to help her move, then hang up the phone and complain about it.

Validate their experience of the world

Help them to trust the messages that their bodies are sending them – panic, fear, hunger, overload. Respect the reaction, even if it wasn’t the one that you were expecting, and never trivialize or discount how they’re feeling.

Respect boundaries

Ask (or alert) before you touch their body. Don’t talk about subjects that you know are upsetting. Don’t force people to make eye contact or talk on the phone if they find these uncomfortable. Set clear boundaries for yourself too so they know how not to offend or upset you.

Try to avoid mood swings

Do what you need to do to get off the roller-coaster. It’s more than understandable that you’re going to have tough days, but the reality is that people with mood swings are scary to be around. Kids who overhear you laughing one minute then suddenly yelling at the guy who cut you off in traffic may feel like they can’t ever trust you not to explode, even when you seem happy.

Help them to figure out who they can trust

Knowing how to identify those you can trust is an important part of building relationships and staying safe. Talk about the people in their lives, and how they feel when these people are around. What does trust mean to them? What are the signs that someone might be lying? How can you tell if someone is being a good friend?

Don’t trick them into doing stuff

It might be easier to get them into the car if they think they’re going to the park instead of the dentist, but their ability to trust you will be seriously damaged. Likewise if you try to sneak some fish into their meal by disguising it to look like their favourite chicken nugget, or say you’re only going to drop into the party for a moment when you intend to stay for three hours.

Help them to let go

It can be easy to perseverate on feeling let down or betrayed, and in doing so it can make those times feel bigger and all-consuming. Making a point to talk about and remember positive interactions, and to acknowledge the people and events that inspire trust, will help to balance that and act as a positive reminder of the trust that already exists in their lives.

The bottom line

Being someone who is consistent, reliable and dependable is a really important part of building trust with the autistic people in your life. Understanding why trust can be so difficult to give and reducing that anxiety will help to build relationships that feel safe, nurturing and rewarding.

23 May, 2013 by Bec Oakley

Bec Oakley is an autistic writer and proud parent, with an intense passion for 80s text adventures, Twizzlers and making the world a better place for autistic people and their families.