How to Talk to Your Child About Autism

Mother and daughter

It can be difficult to know what to say when it is time to talk to your child about having autism. A growing number of people in the autism community view pervasive developmental disorders as more than health conditions; some view them as identities that have many positive aspects. Whether you see it as a health problem or an identity, you can explain the condition to your child in a manner which both enlightening and empowering.

How to Talk to Your Child About Autism

When you decide to tell your child that he or she has autism, it can help to consult a therapist or doctor first for ideas on how to approach the subject. The therapist or doctor can provide recommendations based on your child's specific situation and level of functioning. Some therapists will even provide scripts to help guide parents through discussions about autism with their autistic children.

The best time to talk to a child about having autism varies depending on the severity of the child's autism. Your child's therapist or doctor can help you determine if your child is ready for this discussion. However, if you end up having your first conversation about autism unplanned, such as the child overhearing a discussion or a sibling telling the child about autism, you can still begin the dialog in a positive manner. If you had an unplanned discussion that did not go well, consult the therapist and then follow her recommendations to restart the dialogue.

Presenting Autism in a Positive Manner

Your perception is important, and it can have an impact on your child. Try to avoid becoming overly emotional since anxiety or sadness that you may feel about the situation may cause distress. Be upbeat and keep the explanations at the level your child can understand, based on the therapist recommendations. You can present autism as a difference, not necessarily as a disability.

The exchange doesn't involve lying; you are simply presenting autism in a manner that builds the child's self-confidence. You should still explain the limitations presented by autism symptoms, but in a way that lets your child know he can have achievements and live a fulfilling life.

Discussing Symptoms

It can be difficult to remain upbeat when you are explaining the symptoms of autism to your child. Here are some tips for discussing autism symptoms with your child:

  • You don't have to explain each autism symptom in detail. Give the child a general idea of the symptoms and then address how well the child has handled the symptoms. For example, when discussing difficulties with speech development and communication issues, you might say, "Picture cards help you tell us what you want."
  • Present a positive aspect of a symptom when possible. For example, the child may have a favorite subject or activity that he can stay unusually focused on for hours, such as memorizing routes on the U.S. Highway system map. Let him know that his talent for memorizing these details are due to the autism.
  • Talk about how autism is also an identity and that there is a whole community of people who embrace the unique traits that separate autism from the neurotypical (nonaustistic) world.
  • Let the child know that even though the autism symptoms may provide limitations in certain areas, the child can deal with them and achieve great things.

These tips are a guide, but they are not meant to replace a therapist's or doctor's advice. Be sure to discuss how to talk to your child about autism symptoms with your child's therapist or doctor.

Answering Difficult Questions

When a child asks a difficult question about her autism, you may want to delay answering it until you can consult with the child's therapist. High functioning children with autism may have quite a few questions. Here are some suggestions on how to answer some common difficult questions that you can go over with a professional:

  • "Am I disabled?" You don't have to use the word, "disability," when introducing the idea of autism to your child. Yet if your child asks if she is disabled, you can tell her that while autism is technically a disability and medical condition, it won't stop her from achieving great things in her life.
  • "Will I have autism forever?" You can explain that she will always have autism, and it is part of what makes her the special person she is.
  • "Will I ever live on my own?" You can let your child know that a significant number of adults with autism in effective treatment program live independently, have careers and families.

Talking to Nonautistic Siblings About Autism

When you explain to your nonautistic children about a sibling's autism, it's important to remain positive. Explain what autism is, and how the autistic child views the world. This helps them better understand their sibling's condition. Inform them of the positive aspects of autism, such as a special talent for recalling dates. Keep a constant dialog going to prevent the nonautistic children from getting overwhelmed from the demands of daily life.

A Note About Nonverbal Children

Keep in mind that nonverbal children may understand what people say. Always speak about your child's condition with the awareness that he or she knows what you are saying. Children with autism are often sensitive to the emotions and behaviors of people around them, though they may not necessarily have overt responses.

Talking to your child about having autism can be a positive experience. Carefully prepare for it and work with your child's therapist or doctor to find the best way to reach your child.

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How to Talk to Your Child About Autism