Recently, a friend asked if I would write a post about how to talk to kids about autism. She wants to know how to explain autism to her son, who has a playmate with autism, and figures other parents might be wondering about this too. I love when readers ask questions, so I said Absolutely!
I’m by no means an expert on autism, but as a psychologist I do have a basic understanding of the diagnosis and what it means for kids and families. And, since two of my boys’ cousins have been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), we have personal experience, too.
I wanted to be sure that my suggestions honored the experiences of parents of kids with ASD, so I asked a friend who is both a psychologist and a mom to two boys with autism to help me out. While Juliann’s thoughts may not reflect the thoughts of everyone in the autism community, I appreciate the wonderful insight she provided. As she pointed out, “How you explain autism is really a personal choice that depends on how you see autism. Do you see it as a disorder? Do you see it as a little left of normal? Or do you see it as part of the new normal of society?”
But first: If you aren’t familiar with autism spectrum disorders, the web is full of great resources to help you out. Autism Speaks and the Autism Science Foundation are great starting places, with explanations of the diagnosis and symptoms and behaviors commonly associated with ASD.
Should You Say Anything?
Give some thought to when and why you say something your child. For instance, does your child spend a lot of time with this friend? ASD occurs on a very large spectrum, from mild to severe – how severe is the other child’s ASD? Is it something your child notices yet?
Helping our kids to understand differences – of all kinds – means talking to them about those differences. When we don’t talk about the obvious, kids are likely to come to their own – often inaccurate – conclusions. Providing information promotes understanding and also gives us the opportunity to teach our kids compassion and empathy. That should always be our goal.
When my oldest was very young, he didn’t notice at all that anything was “different” about his cousin and so there was no need to say anything. But his cousin is largely non-verbal and by the time my son was 4 or 5, the fact his cousin didn’t respond to him the way he expected confused him. “I asked him to give me my plane back, but he just ignored me.” That was the point at which I felt it was necessary to talk to Zip about his cousin’s autism.
To Label or Not To Label
Labels can be very helpful in certain situations. As Juliann explained, “Try telling a teacher my son just likes to shift in his seat or that he requires ‘increased proprioreceptive feedback.’ Blank stares. The label comes in handy when dealing with doctors’ offices, schools, etc., because the label is a language they understand.”
It isn’t always necessary to use the term “autism” when explaining a child’s differences to your child. The reason you are telling your child a friend has autism is to help your child better understand his friend – the explanation you provide is really what matters.
I love how my friend explains autism to people she knows well:
“For example, with my (neurotypical) daughter I might say, ‘You know how you’re good at reading and singing songs, but when you were little you used to fall out of chairs and you still trip up steps? Well, that is becuase your brain is wired to be good at reading and bad at coordination. Your brother’s brain is also wired a certain way. He is really good at remembering the words to shows or video games, really good at showing excitement (by flapping his hands), and not so good at controlling his emotions all the time or understanding langauge. His brain is just different from yours and mine. Just like my brain is different than yours and Daddy’s. This is the beautiful way God made him.
“When people have a certain type of brain they call that autism. Not all autistic kids are the same, just like you aren’t the same as your friends.”
Focus on the autistic child’s strengths and explain differences as just that – differences. Explaining that these differences are part of how a person’s brain is wired helps kids to understand that the autism-related behaviors are simply part of how a child was born, not something “bad,” “weird,” or “broken.”
Use Books As A Resource
The following images are affiliate links – clicking the image will take you to the book on Amazon.
Just keep in mind that, as the saying goes, “If you have met one person with autism, you have met one person with autism,” meaning that every child with autism is unique and may not share the symptoms and behaviors of the characters in a particular book.
Respect and Compassion
Although our cousin doesn’t speak much and rarely initiates social interaction, the first thing we do when we visit is say hello. Make sure your child knows to speak directly to his friend – just as he would anyone else – even if his friend doesn’t respond in a neurotypical way.
Encourage your child to be kind and make sure the other child is included. Whether or not the child with ASD is able to join in, a little respect and caring go a long way.
I like to prepare my children for situations where they may not know how to respond. When they were going to be introduced to a friend’s son who was on the autism spectrum, I told them that they were going to meet a child whose brain works differently than theirs, to remember that different doesn’t mean bad, and that they could ask me any questions.
They wanted to know what the differences were, so I told them about his sensory integration difficulties, stereotypical behaviors, and obsession with cars. I told them to remember to be kind and keep him included in their play. They did fantastic.
The following year, my son had a classmate who was on the spectrum. They are still friends to this day and he is very protective of that boy, making sure nobody picks on him “just because his brain works differently.”