Talking to Your Child about Autism

Talking to your kids about autism by Nicole Connolly, Ph.D., PsychologistHave you ever needed to sit down and talk to your child about autism?  Is this a conversation you are planning to have but are unsure how to begin?Many parents struggle with how to talk to their children about autism and other similar conditions. And these conversations are ten times harder when it's your own child who has the diagnosis and needs to be told.While it may be tempting to avoid telling children about their own diagnosis of autism because it may make them "feel bad" about themselves, I think avoiding ultimately does them a disservice.  Particularly for high-functioning children, helping them understand the diagnosis can be very freeing and can help them make better sense of the differences they see between themselves and others.Explaining autism is also important for typically developing children, especially as they become aware that some children are different in certain ways.  Whether they are siblings, family, or friends of a child with autism, it is important to help them understand the condition to encourage empathy and patience.As you begin thinking about this and talking with your child about autism or any other disability, the following guidelines can be helpful for improving those discussions:

1.  Start with what your child already knows.

Kids pick up an incredible amount of information from the world around them.  Before launching into an extended discussion about your child's own diagnosis or the diagnosis of a friend or relative, ask a few questions to see what your child already knows about autism.  You may be surprised at the information your child already has.  They may also have some inaccurate beliefs about autism that need to be corrected.  The only way to determine this is to ask first.

2.  Keep the discussion simple and age appropriate.

Children of different ages can handle different amounts of information about complex issues such as autism. Let your child be your guide.  For younger children, as they begin to notice differences between themselves and others, those observations can be a good starting point for a conversation about disabilities and why some children are different.  Young children may need very simple explanations while older children can handle more complex and nuanced explanations.

3.  Focus on strengths and weaknesses rather than lists of symptoms.

A quick Google search can very quickly return a list of symptoms that make up the diagnosis of "autism spectrum disorder."  However, a list of social and communication deficits is only part of the picture of an individual with autism spectrum disorder.Every child, regardless of diagnostic label, has a unique set of personal strengths.  Identify those strengths and emphasize the positive benefits of some of the autism symptoms (e.g. being REALLY good at focusing on learning about one specific interest).  By focusing on the "silver lining" of autism, you can help your child reduce the stigma of the diagnosis and promote more healthy self-esteem.Similarly, it can be helpful for typically developing children to also take a balanced view of their peers on the autism spectrum and recognize that all kids have strengths and weaknesses.

4.  Use materials written from the perspective of an individual with autism to help improve understanding.

Many kids respond positively to reading books or watching videos talking about the diagnosis from the perspective of a person with autism spectrum disorder.  There are many different books and other products on the market for children of different ages.  Reading some of these books or watching this kind of video can really help kids feel like they are not alone in their struggles and can help improve their understanding of the condition overall.  Even if your child doesn't seem interested at first, just having a couple of these books around can provide opportunities for future exploration and conversation about the topic.Some of my favorites include:

Recently, I came across the following video that presents ASD from the perspective of an elementary school aged boy who has autism.  There is also an associated book available to read with kids:ASD and Me:For children who are able to understand and appreciate humor, materials such as All Cats Have Asperger Syndrome can be a great way to introduce the topic in a lighthearted manner.  The illustrated book is a wonderful resource, and it has been converted into a video available on YouTube:

5.  Remember that this is a process.

Kids (and adults!) have a limit for what they can intellectually and emotionally process at any one time.  Most children need to hear these things repeated several times and in different ways throughout their development.  These conversations are not a one-time deal - they are an ongoing dialogue between you and your child.For all the parents who have read this, I want to challenge you to embrace this opportunity to help your child better understand himself/herself and others.  Even though these conversations can be hard, they are worth it in the end!