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How To Explain Autism to Kids

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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 it when readers ask questions, so I said Absolutely!

I’m by no means an expert on autism, but  I do have a basic understanding of the diagnosis and what it means for kids and families. 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 her 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?”

With that in mind, here are a few guidelines for explaining a friend’s (or classmate’s or family member’s) autism to neurotypical kids.

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 to 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 him about his cousin’s autism.

To Label or Not To Label

Labels can be very helpful in certain situations. As she explained,

“Try telling a teacher my son just likes to shift in his seat or that he requires ‘increased proprioceptive 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.

Be Strengths-Based

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 because your brain is wired to be good at reading and bad at coordination. Your brother’s brain is also wired in 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 language. 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

Books can be a wonderful way to introduce a concept to kids, especially if we aren’t quite sure how to go about explaining it ourselves! When I started looking for picture books about autism, I found a surprising number of books with negative reviews from members of the ASD community, because many books perpetuate negative or “diseased” images of people with autism. Below are a handful of books that received positive reviews from families living with autism and can be used as a starting point for talking with kids about autism.

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 to 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.

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