How to explain autism to children? I end this sentence with a question mark for a very good reason. This is a question I ask myself every single day. I see my little boy wanting to socialize appropriately with his peers. We work diligently to implement strategies and interventions to help him work through his obstacles.
But, there is only so much we can do. At the end of the day it is just my wonderfully unique and complex son out there in the world. Desperately seeking connections and friends and social interactions. And, he is struggling. He is struggling to make connections. Struggling to interact appropriately. Desperate for friends and social interactions, and struggling.
I wish I could come into this space and tell you that I have all of the answers. The truth is that I not sure I will ever know everything there is to know. Autism is interesting that way, just when you think you have it all figured out…everything changes.
I promised myself that I would push forward on this journey. Even in moments when I wanted to run away. And, with that promise in my mind and in my heart I will do my very best replace that question mark with a period.
How to explain autism to children.
Be honest. Children are so smart and so aware of the world happening around them. Every day they are watching the things that we do and say. The way we treat people. Our words have so much power to influence the little people in our lives. Sometimes parents struggle to determine how to talk to children about things that are difficult. When it comes to talking to our children about difference and their friends with special needs it is so important to be honest. If we are not honest, our children will not learn what they need to from us. They will look for answers to their questions in other places. And, in doing so we will lose our control over the information they receive. When we talk to our children in a real and honest way we send a message that it is ok to talk about things that are difficult.
Use age appropriate language. Sometimes we get so caught up in the life that is happening all around us that we forget all of the wonder and naivety of being a child. Too many times we fill their little heads with words and experiences that are far too mature for their comprehension. I believe that there is a way to talk in a real way about children with special needs without crossing that line. Children have an amazing capacity to rise to the occasion. Understand that your child is already picking up on the differences between themselves and their peers or their siblings. It is our job as parents to help explain the differences to them in a way that provides them with information and also helps to calm their fears. Many times children react a certain way to their peers with a special needs because they do not understand the difference. We can help them understand.
Make it a two-way conversation. Let you child ask questions, but do not be afraid to ask questions to help guide the conversation. Kids have this amazing ability to pick up on all of the insightful things happening around them in the world…and then completely forget about them 4 minutes later. Sometimes your child will not come right out and talk to you about their friend with special needs. They may not tell you that their classmate is knocking over their Legos and that it is making them mad. They may not let you know that their special friend does not answer them when they ask him questions. The may forget that earlier in the day they were sad because their classmate started yelling in the middle of class for no reason. If you ask them questions they will remember and they will talk to you. Ask questions that help them understand the larger concept of “difference” as well as the smaller occurrences of day to day differences between them and their special friends.
Keep the conversation going. This will not be just one conversation that you have and then check off a list. The significant prevalence of bullying is an indication that we need to be talking to our kids about difference and acceptance all of the time. Even if we believe that our kids understand our message. Even if we believe that our children are good and kind kids. Even if we see our children be-friending children with special needs. There is never “enough” when it comes to helping our kids understand the importance and the power of using theirs words for good. As our children get older the conversations will evolve. At age 4 kids may openly embrace their peers with special needs. But, as they grow older the circumstances will change. The peer pressures will influence them. The conversation may change, but the message will stay the same: show kindness to all people. Show them tolerance. Accept their differences. Accept them.
I do these things in my own home each day. I ask my youngest son how he feels when his brother yells or hits or slams the door. Sometimes he tells me that he feels scared or angry. Sometimes he does not say anything at all. Sometimes he cries. Sometimes he laughs and says “silly Gray.” The reality is that my youngest son is 2. He may not understand exactly what is happening in our home, but he is old enough and smart enough to notice the differences between him and his brother. So we talk to him about that difference.
If you are not sure where to begin, that is ok. I didn’t either when I started. Talking about things that are hard in a real way is difficult for adults. It is even harder when we are talking to our children. So, one day at a time I found opportunities to talk about the difference we experience at home. And the difference my children will experience in the world.
When we are in social settings with friends I often find myself explaining Grayson’s behaviors to other children. And, when I look around the parent is looking at me eager to hear my words. Eager to learn. To know what to say. Looking for permission and guidance. To those parents I may appear confident in my message. I am not. Inside my heart is breaking to have this conversation over and over again. But I will have that conversation as many times as it takes to help us along this journey. To help Grayson find his place in the world.
Talk to your children about difference. Help your child understand their special friends and all of the magic they bring into the world!
– Grayson’s Mommy