As a speech therapist at ChildServe, I work with many families who have children with autism. I’ve been with families in our diagnostic clinic who are learning their child has autism for the first time, and I’ve supported older kids who might even ask me directly, “What is autism?”
Kids are naturally curious. If they hear the word autism at the evaluation, or hear you talking to their doctor, teacher, or friends about autism, it’s likely that they will start to ask questions. Depending on the child, they might ask you out loud or they may just wonder about it in their thoughts.
Do you feel confident about talking to your child about autism? If you are unsure of yourself, it can be confusing for your child. I hope the tips below will help you feel prepared and ready to talk about autism if and when the time comes.
Set a timer for 10 minutes and write down everything you think you want to say to your child. As a parent, you probably know lots of information about autism, and you may be used to talking to adults. Look at the words you used – will your child understanding the actual words you’re using? Are you giving them too much detail? Some of it might be great for their teacher or doctor, but will your child care about it or need to know?
During your brainstorming process, it may help you to check out Sesame Street’s character Julia who has autism, and listen to how the show introduces autism. The children’s book, I See Things Differently: A First Look at Autism, by Pat Thomas, is another great resource. You can consider sharing these resources directly with your child as part of your explanation. Other good resources include talking to your child’s therapist or other parents who have kids with autism, and checking out parent resources from Autism Speaks.
If you’re considering having this conversation, you’ve probably already felt that your child knows something is “different” about them. You don’t need to shy away from the topic. In fact, sometimes kids are more stressed out by the idea that “There’s something wrong, but no one will tell me.” If you tell your child they have autism, nothing in their daily life will change. Instead, you have given them a name for the experiences, feelings, struggles, and triumphs they already face each day.
Kids love to hear positive things about themselves. Every child is unique and has their own set of strengths and challenges. It’s not only about what they can’t do or struggle with because of autism. Think about your child’s gifts and what makes them tick – what is unique that you love about them? Work those topics into the conversation.
Be Age Appropriate
Your knowledge of your child makes you an expert. Don’t use big clinical terms if your child won’t be able to understand them, and don’t hold back information from a child or young adult who is hungry to understand even more. Look at your brainstorming sheet and decide which words and ideas you want to start with, and which ones might come up in a couple years.
Depending on your child, a simple response might be all they’re looking for! “Autism is a name for the way your brain works. Autism is the reason why you have a hard time with (insert activity here), but it’s part of the reason why you (insert positive affirmation).”
Be Calm and Relaxed
This doesn’t have to be a big scary conversation. You aren’t announcing that they have a dangerous illness or anything that will change something in their life. This is just as much a part of who they are as their hair is curly or their eyes are blue. If you’re feeling calm and relaxed, so will they.
If your child is young, you might have a while to plan out how you want to talk to them about autism. If your child is asking questions now, it might be the perfect opportunity for you to start laying the groundwork of their understanding.
ChildServe improves the health and well-being of over 4,200 children each year through specialized clinical, home, and community-based programs and services. We serve children with developmental delays, disabilities, acquired injuries, and other special healthcare needs.