As the numbers of children with autism continues to rise, there is no doubt your child will encounter kids with autism in school or on the playground. Talk to your kids about autism and send them off with empathy and understanding because the more the average person knows about autism, the better it will be for the community, especially our autistic members. However, many people aren’t able to easily define autism because it’s no simple concept. It isn’t a simple state of being; autistic people vary greatly in how they are impacted by their differences and may be on either end of the spectrum.
Helping our kids to understand differences, of all kinds, means talking to them about those 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,” or “weird.” 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. Because you are your child’s guide and as soon as anything negative is said or implied, your children are learning that being autistic (being the way they are) is something to be ashamed of, which is the last thing any parent wants their children to feel.
So, how does the average parent explain autism to their child so that they’re able to understand a condition that’s so complex? How do we help them to become not merely tolerant, but to welcome their spectrum peers and interact with them? Here are some guidelines to help in doing so.
Know that honest questions are not rude. How else does a child learn? Yes, certain actions performed from an autistic individual may seem odd to a typical child but there is no need to shame a child for an innocent question. This is a great time to explain that everybody doesn’t have to be the same. It’s okay to leave out the parts you know a young child is not yet developmentally able to comprehend as long as they understand different is not specifically bad.
Make sure your child sees a person, not a disability; this is true for people with any kind of special needs, not just autism. Sometimes children may be curious about behaviors they see or students who look different for one reason or another. Almost every parent has had that moment where their child stares for a little too long. In those cases, you can try to find something about that person your child can relate to. For example, if you see a little boy with a blue backpack on who is spinning and making sounds, point out how backpack and mention to your child how neat it is and how they love the color blue too. This technique helps initiate interaction and helps your child get over their fear of unfamiliar behaviors.
Kids get metaphors, and they’re easy for parents to use, too. Thus, reading books about autism and autistic characters is a great idea, and with such a vast amount of resources available online, you can easily find some explanation books that may make the concept more relatable. The nice thing about these is that you can take the explanations and adapt them to your own personal circumstance. The added benefit of using books, of course, is that if you’re intimidated by the idea of having ‘the autism talk’, the books will guide you through it.
Focus on ability and strengths when discussing an autistic child. Keep the conversation focused on what he or she can do. Perhaps she may not speak, but she loves playing in the sprinkler or dancing to music. Make suggestions for how to include everyone and solicit suggestions from other kids. Be sure they know to speak directly to an autistic child, even if he/she is nonverbal. Autism is not an intellectual disability. A child may understand perfectly well without speaking and may have ways to communicate his or her wishes.
Children are growing up in a world much more diverse than that of previous generations. If you model acceptance and understanding, not only will you raise kind, supportive individuals but they will be better prepared for their future in a world of uniquely able people.