Talking to your child about autism: 5 Things you need to know

Talking to your child

We’re beginning a new era right now.

It used to be that most of William’s strange behaviors could be mistaken for weird preschooler nonsense, and required no explanation. But he’s 7 now. People are starting to notice that he’s different. Grownups, of course, don’t comment (well, not unless they’re 90 and they’ve lost their edit button). But kids do.

What this translates into is probably what most parents find to be a very awkward situation. Goes like this.

Me: I just can’t believe the things I have to say to my kids.

Friend: I just said “NO PEANUT BUTTER IN THE BATHROOM” today.


Me: Or don’t step–

(Friend’s child comes busting in)

Child: William won’t stop flapping that thing / won’t answer me / won’t give me my toy! Why is he doing that? *tears*

Friend: Um…(looks at me nervously)

(This, by the way, was not an actual situation. Just a hypothetical average of conversations I’ve had. So friends, if this little ditty looks familiar, I promise I haven’t singled you out. I’m quoting at least five different conversations!) 🙂

I should probably say it here: if it were me on the other side of this situation, I’d be so deer-in-headlights it’s not even funny. So I’ll give you a model that was provided for me. This weekend, I experienced a situation like this one, and the parents handled it beautifully. Here’s what my friend Emily said to her daughter.

Emily: Do you remember what I told you about William before he got here?

Daughter: (looks back at William to jog her memory…nothing surfaces, looks back at Mom confused)

Emily: He has autism, like (family member’s name). Do you remember what that means?

Daughter: (still bothered by William’s behavior) Yeah, but…

Emily: His brain’s just a little different from yours. He’s flapping because it helps him. It’s what his brain needs right now.

Daughter: Okay. (runs back into the room to play)

For the record, Emily didn’t seem at all awkward or nervous during that whole thing; she was cool and collected as per uze, but even if she’d been a hot stumbling stuttering mess, I wouldn’t have judged. 🙂

Anyway, here’s what’s right about what Emily did.

#1: She was positive. She didn’t talk about a disease or a disorder, or make it sound like it would be super hard to be friends with him. She acknowledged the social problem, and showed her child the way around it.

#2: She kept it simple and short. It was like a minute-long conversation. Seriously. She didn’t go on and on about the neurological specifics and clusters and pathways and connections and all that; she didn’t talk about sensory overstimulation and what that must be like (although that’s a fine conversation to have another time, if they’re asking questions). It was just…his brain’s different from yours, that means he’ll act differently from you, and that’s ok.

#3: She validated both her child and mine. She didn’t blow her off by saying that it’s no big deal and then roll her eyes at me like, what’s up with this one, huh? She validated her child’s obvious distress about William’s flapping, and continued to validate William’s challenges by saying it’s something he needs to do, and it’s totally cool that he needs to do it.

#4: She prepped beforehand. Now, I could be wrong, but I know at least from my own experience with my kids that while they may act like they have no memory whatsoever of said preparation (amirite?!), they make an important connection when I remind them of what we talked about and I can then point to the thing in action. I bet you ten bucks that’s why Emily’s kiddo said “ok” and ran off. She remembered, she connected theory to practical meaning, and she got it. No further explanation necessary.

#5: She was dispassionate. She didn’t say it with a whisper, like it was something embarrassing. She didn’t moan or imply with her tone that we should all be his friends because he’s a poor, unfortunate soul. She didn’t even say anything was wrong with him. Complete matter-of-fact-ness wins the day.

Good job, Emily!

And you know what? If you’re my friend, and we really care about each other, listen:

I love you. I love that you love my child, and that you love me through this special-needs-parenting life. I’m happy to help you through this conversation with your kid if it unfolds in front of me. And if you’re struggling to find the right words, I am *not* offended. I love that you care to find them.

Thanks, friends, for caring. ❤


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