With an estimated 1 in 45 children, ages 3 through 17, diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) across the United States, there is no doubt that most children will meet at least one child with autism at school or in the community.
When they do, it’s important that they meet the situation with the kind of empathy and understanding that only comes from clear, direct, honest information about what it means to be autistic. But, explaining autism to children is not always easy. Quite frankly, explaining it to adults isn’t always easy.
The average person probably has a general idea about what autism is, but when pressed might not be able to clearly define it. Autism is a complicated disorder with a remarkable amount of variety across a very wide spectrum. On one side of the spectrum, you’ll find articulate individuals living full, independent lives. On the other side, you’ll find individuals who are unable to communicate at all.
So, how can the average parent, teacher, or mentor help kids understand what it means to be a child with autism? What can we do to not only help kids be more tolerant of the differences, but to know how to be inclusive?
Here are a few questions children might have about autism and some suggestions for explaining what autism means and how they can treat all children with understanding and respect.
What is Autism?
Helping children understand what autism is all about is generally the best place to begin the conversation. Do your best to keep the explanation simple, yet clear. Perhaps something like this:
Autism makes it really hard to deal with all the people, things, and noises in the world. For example, when you hear your school bell ringing, you know it’s time for class to begin or end. The sound doesn’t bother you. But for someone with autism, the sound might sound very annoying or even frightening. Things like the tag inside their shirt, or the sun shining on their face might feel like torture. Also, children with autism often have a difficult time talking to other people and saying what they are thinking. This can be very frustrating for them.
I don’t know how to talk to or play with them. How can I try to include them?
Just like most children, children with autism often have a favorite thing. Sometimes their favorite is something like a toy or stuffed animal. Sometimes it’s a favorite shirt or hat. They might also have a favorite thing that they like to do, like twirl around in circles, color pictures, or work on math problems.
Help kids to understand that even though there might be a lot of differences between them and a child with autism, there are probably also things they have in common – you have favorites, and I have favorites.
But, what’s really important for children to understand about a favorite item that belongs to a child with autism, is that they should never take it away.
Explain that taking things away from any child is not kind. But, for children with autism, their favorite thing might be helping them to feel more secure in the world. Taking something away from them can cause them to feel frightened and confused. When this happens, they might get very angry or throw a fit because they don’t know how to ask for the object back. Explain that if they are playing with a child with autism, it’s very important to leave their toys alone unless they give them to you.
This is also a good opportunity to focus on ability. Point out, for example, that the child with autism might not speak in full sentences, but can play the violin. Help them identify with the other child by listing things that they too can, and can’t, do.
Why do they act like that?
Communicating needs, wants, thoughts, and feelings can be unbelievably difficult for children with autism. So, when they feel sad, angry, anxious, scared, or overwhelmed they sometimes make loud noises, run, jump, spin, clap or shout. Explain that they are only trying to communicate, but don’t know how. When this happens, the best thing another child can do is to allow them some space, and go find an adult if the situation feels scary or dangerous.
Sometimes, other children better at understanding what caused the meltdown than the adults in the room. Explain to the child that if they think they know what the problem is, they should speak up and tell the adult in charge. In this way, they can help the child with autism, just like they want their friends to help them when they are having a problem.
The most important thing to explain about children with autism: They are not a disability. They are people with a disability.
While this might be the most important thing to explain, it’s also perhaps the most difficult. You might say something like this…
“Every child in the world is different and has different needs, abilities, interests, and talents. So do you! If you are good at playing football, then you have a talent for football. But, you are not the talent. If you catch a cold, then you have a cold. But, you are not the cold. If you are good at math, then you have an ability to do math. But, you are not the ability. And a child might have a disability like autism, but they are not the disability.”
Most of the time, when children see other children who look or act differently from them, their first reaction is simply curiosity. And, when children are curious, they tend to stare. Rather than causing the child to feel embarrassment or shame about the behavior of staring, use it as an opportunity to help the child find something about the other person that they can relate to.
You might say, “That child has red shoes just like you. Did you notice that?” This can help the child get over their fear of unfamiliar behaviors and reframe the situation in the child’s mind from “me vs them” to “we”. It can help shift thoughts like “I don’t act like they do” to “we both have red shoes.” This creates a more empathetic perspective in the child’s mind, and creates an opening to explain what the behavior is about and what autism is.
Today’s children are growing up in a world that is more diverse than any generation before them. As adults, if we model empathy, acceptance, and understanding, our kids are more likely to grow up into the kind of people who are prepared for a future of uniquely able people.
Are you looking for ABA services for your child in the comfort of your home? Are you looking for less stress in your life? Cornerstones Autism Services can help.