How to Talk to Your
Children About Autism
Many parents of children with autism struggle with how to talk about autism with other children, whether it’s your own children, their cousins, their playmates, or their classmates. Even if you don’t have a child with autism, talking to your children about diversity and inclusion will help to normalize their acceptance of people who are different than them — including those with autism.
The truth is that children tend to be smarter and more empathetic than many people give them credit for, and the words you use when talking to your children about autism matter, whether you’re explaining autism to classmates or trying to work out how to tell children in your family that your child has autism. Read on for some helpful tips on how to explain autism to kids.
Choose Age-Appropriate Words
Autism spectrum disorder is complicated, especially since no two individuals with autism will communicate or react in the same exact way. This can make it tricky to explain autism to children unless they ask specific questions. If you’re talking to your own children about their sibling’s diagnosis for the first time, it may be a little easier due to your familiarity with all the children in question.
But maybe there is a child on the playground who has asked you why your child is behaving in a way they did not expect. Depending on the age of the child you’re explaining this to, make sure to use developmentally appropriate phrases. For younger children, saying something like, “He has autism, and rocking back and forth makes him feel safe. He isn’t dangerous, and autism isn’t contagious.”
For older children, you can be a little more in-depth: “He was born with autism and his brain works a little differently than ours, which means he experiences the world in a different way than we do.”
Furthermore, it’s important to focus on the things your child can do rather than their deficits; for example, you can say something like, “She doesn’t talk, but she loves playing with her dinosaur toys — maybe you would like to play with her?”
If your child observes their sibling, cousin, or friend with autism behaving differently than they expected — for example, flapping their hands, repeating words, or not responding to their name — how you explain it to them may influence the way that they think about autism for the rest of their lives. That’s why it’s so important to choose your words carefully. For example, if your child witnesses a child with autism exhibiting different behaviors in public, you can explain, “People react to things differently. We need to be kind and understanding.”
However, this doesn’t mean that you should shame children for asking questions. Children are naturally curious about the world and may not perceive their honest questions as offensive. Give them a calm, compassionate explanation and, if their question was in fact inappropriate, tell them why or offer an alternative. For example, you can take them aside and say, “We don’t point and stare at people. Maybe they are flapping their hands because they can’t help it. We should be respectful and give them space.”
And, of course, modeling this behavior in your own life is important. Children are keen observers, and if you don’t practice what you preach, they will absolutely notice. If they see you pointing and whispering about someone with a disability, even though you told them it was rude, they’re more likely to emulate you than to listen to your instructions.
Seek Out Additional Resources
When in doubt, research! There are a variety of resources available for parents who wish to speak to their neurotypical children about autism, including an increasing number of picture books for younger children and chapter books for elementary and middle-schoolers that talk about autism or feature a character who has autism.
The way that autism is portrayed in books, movies, and television matters, and if any of the resources you uncover depict autism in a way that’s different from what your child expected, that may also be worth a conversation as well. “In the movie we watched, this is how the person with autism acted, but not all people with autism do this. Some people with autism may feel similar to this character, while others might say that this character hurt their feelings. Every person is different!”
When seeking out additional resources, it’s important to keep in mind that people with autism are not a monolith. Find books that discuss autism in a respectful, nuanced way that avoids stereotyping and outdated or harmful language to give your child a fuller and more accurate picture of autism spectrum disorder.
At The Cardinal Center for Behavior Analysis, we are happy to point you in the right direction when it comes to finding these resources and making sure you’re set up for success when it is time to speak with children about autism. If you have any questions or concerns, please don’t hesitate to reach out to us at (919) 822-8802, and if you have just received an autism diagnosis or are seeking a new ABA provider, please fill out our contact form to request a confidential consultation today.
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