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The Easy Way to Tell a Child They Have Autism

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Parents of children diagnosed with an Autism Spectrum Disorder often fret about when to tell their child they have Autism and how.

What if we didn’t have to tell our children they have Autism?

Wouldn’t it be nice if we lived in a world without disclosure?

Ah, yes, it would but that might be a bit unrealistic.

But what if I told you there was an easy way to tell your child?

What if I told you that you can create a positive experience for telling your child he or she has Autism?

Do you think this is possible? I say yes and here is why.

Let’s face it we are all different. We all relate to the world uniquely and teaching that to our children is the most important thing any parent can begin to do at an early age. When a parent can matter-of-factly point out the similarities and differences among themselves as a family and beyond then being different becomes less of an issue. Honoring and celebrating each of our differences in a valued fashion rather then waiting for it to be pointed out and discussed when it becomes obvious gives any label less emphasis and is more likely to be seen as a positive.

So how does one put a positive spin on telling their child they are on the Autism spectrum? By developing mindsets and environments that not only expect differences but value and respect them as well.

Allow me to paint a picture of how this might occur.

- Be proactive. Begin early on to establish an environment that discusses similarities and differences in a positive light. Identify each person’s learning style, temperament, personality, sensory issues and idiosyncrasies and focus on the positive aspects of them. As attention is paid to the benefits of each it is only natural for human beings to gravitate and create more of the same thus minimizing the negative. Don’t wait for Autism to become noticeable to your child or others. Doing so risks negatively altering your child’s perception of self. Avoid this by developing a positive and authentic self-image of who she is early on, one that does not have to be changed or explained later on.

- Acquire a vocabulary without labels. Be mindful to use language that emphasizes strengths in relation to challenges. When someone does something well, name it as an asset and celebrate it. Point to the fact that everyone is good at something that might be a bit more difficult for someone else in the family or elsewhere to accomplish. This will encourage non-judgmental comparison and can even promote a mentoring atmosphere, where individuals use their strengths to help other family members who are challenged in that same area. The ability to objectively see the strengths each family member, relative, friend and others have normalizes the fact that we are ALL good at something. The trick is to do this uniformly and acknowledge the strengths of everyone in the family, including us adults.

- Balance every challenge with a strength. Discuss ways to use your strengths to compensate for your challenges. Occasionally sit down with everyone and discuss how each of you utilize your strengths to make accommodations for the things that you may struggle with. For example, sitting in class listening to the teacher doesn’t work well because you are not an auditory learner. You struggle to take notes because your penmanship is poor. So you augment your note-taking with your talent for art. Over the years you have developed a type of artistic shorthand that you use to take unique notes adding pictures and symbols. This appeals to your visual learning style and helps you remember the lesson better.

- Normalize everyone’s challenges. If your child’s differences came in the form of diabetes, epilepsy, poor eyesight or food allergies would you wait to address it? No, you would describe it as “this is the way your body works and this is what it needs to function at it’s best.” Why are we so much more sensitive and touchy when it comes to something that affects the mind? Why can’t we be just as matter-of-fact about the way a child’s brain or nervous system works? Explaining to a child, “This is how your nervous system works” or “This is how your brain is wired” helps to paint a realistic picture of how their body functions. This is powerful information for children to have in order to self advocate, keep themselves safe and in control of what they need to maximize their potential.

Describing Autism without using the word Autism can definitely be accomplished but only to a point. Following the recommendations above can delay or may even prevent the asking of the awkward question most parents fear, “What is wrong with me?” or “Why am I different?” Unfortunately the day may still come when your child wants to have a name for his differences whether he sees them as positive or negative.

Should the time come when your child really wants to know what her brain style is called then you need to let her know the label society gives it. But if you began early in her life to lay the affirmative groundwork discussed above then the label is apt to be just another piece of factual information rather than a devastating blow to your child’s sense of self. Always remember that the most important message will be in the descriptors you use rather than the label itself.

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If you are a parent who has already told their child he or she has Autism please share what your experience was like. If you have any words of wisdom to share please drop them in the comment box below as well. We can learn a lot from one another.

Comments

  1. Thanks for this article. It will be very helpful to our families!

  2. Christina says:

    OK, so ever since he was diagnosed with Aspergers, I have struggled to find a way to explain autism to Chance. I wanted him to understand his disorder and how it changes things for him, but I never wanted him to feel restricted or “less than”. I wanted to empower him and give him the self-awareness to overcome his obstacles. I’ve always reassured him that although he is different, that doesn’t mean he’s not every bit as wonderful as any other person. It’s not bad to be different. In fact, the world would be very boring if we were all exactly the same, wouldn’t it? Well… I was just throwing the casserole together for dinner and as I pop it in the oven, Chance comes up to me and asks if we can talk. “Of course! I always have time to talk to my boys. What’s up?” I ask him. This is what he told me, pretty much word for word.

    I’ve been thinking about this autism thing and I think I understand. Imagine people were computers. Some are desktops, some are laptops. We all LOOK different on the outside but on the inside we’re all pretty much the same. Usually. Just like skin colors and sizes and hair and eyes on people. Right?

    (I nod, wondering where this is heading)

    Sometimes there are some different computers though, called Macs. Now Macs can do pretty much everything a regular PC can do. Just like autistic kids. Sometimes they have a hard time though, not all programs work on Macs. Sometimes they do work but you need to use different drivers. Just like social stories. Macs follow a different set of rules sometimes.

    (I nod, starting to understand his thought process here)

    There are different kinds of software though, that ONLY work on Macs. There are some things that Macs are better at. Macs can be used for creative activities, and Macs are good at designing things. Just like me. I’m a Mac, mommy. And you are a PC. So is Carter.

    (I nod, my mind racing to try and anticipate his desired reaction from me)

    Now listen, mommy… I don’t want you to think that there’s anything wrong with you being a PC, you’re a great PC. So is Carter. You’re good at being PCs. Really, you are! But that’s not for me. I’m happy being a Mac. I’m happy being autistic. I can’t do everything you can, but I can do my own very special things. And if I wasn’t a Mac, maybe I wouldn’t be so good at all the things I love. I was meant to be a Mac. And you were meant to be a PC. And even though we’re different, we can still get along perfectly well if stop thinking about our labels and just think about whats inside. I wish the kids at my school knew that.

    At which point he runs off to his room to finish his schematic for a time machine. Good thing too. I’m sitting here with tears welling up in my eyes, still at a loss for a response (not that he’d care, he’s off in his world again) He gets it. My boy understands autism. Maybe better than I do. I love him so much!

  3. Christina says:

    Just goes to show that sometimes its the children teaching the parents!

  4. Cindy Ackerson says:

    It’s only been a few months since my daughters diagnosis of Ausperger Syndrome. I just felt that I don’t want her to use the diagnosis as and excuse like she tries to do with her ADHD. I do like the idea of talking to her about the different things that she does have issues with and explain through it without giving it an actual label. This article made me feel better knowing that I’m not the only person who didn’t tell their child they had a label.

  5. Connie, this is such an important topic and you have wonderful suggestions. Thanks!

  6. Connie says:

    I am so glad. Thank you for letting me know.

  7. Connie says:

    Wow! What a wonderful story, thank you so much for sharing. What an extraordinary and logical mind your son has! You obviously have been laying the groundwork well for your son to come to this analogy. And to think that he is worried about telling you that you are different, comforting you that you are a PC. I love it!!! And yes Christina, children are here to teach us just as much as we are here to teach them.

  8. Connie says:

    Take your time to lay some groundwork Cindy and trust your gut about when the time is right to disclose the label. Some children are OK just knowing they are different (especially when their differences are seen mostly in their strengths) and they don’t ask if there is a label for it. You will find your way : )

  9. Leann Hartnett says:

    I have a son with autism. He is 9 almost 10. In an attempt to speak with him about autism, I asked him if he knew what autism was. He responded with yes. I then asked what is autism? His reponse was to point to his chest and say me. It was cute to me. It let me know, that he knows more then he lets on at times. After this short conversation, he continued on with coloring as if I wasn’t there.

  10. Connie says:

    Thank you Leann for sharing your story. Kids on the spectrum are so concrete! As you continue to talk to him he will eventually sees himself as more than Autism. Yes they do absorb more than we know – every day is a new discovery with kids!

  11. lisa says:

    I simply loved the computer theory explained by the autistic boy…out of the mouths of babes, right?
    i am a caregiver to my 8 yr-old nephew. we have never told him he has autism. is this something we should be trying to explain to him or just hightlight his differences and strengths…its a question as his verbal communication is somewhat limited right now. thank you and god bless

  12. Connie says:

    It’s always good to talk about the strengths that kids have as I point out in my article. Knowing how his brain and body works is important information for him to have. Considering his communication challenges maybe writing a social story about his strengths is a good way to make it real for him.

  13. I love this, and I am sharing it. This is very consistent with what I believe, but you have put it together in a wonderful way. It took us a while at first to really understand the power and importance of the truths that you set forth here. We’re not labeling our kids, we’re not stigmatizing them, we’re accepting them! We are giving them names and explanations for what they already know and observe to be true. My 8 year old daughter is now so comfortable with the fact that she has autism that she recently charmed a new babysitter by telling her, with a big smile on her face: “You may have noticed that I am a little autistic. That’s because I have autism.”
    Does she understand every nuance of what it means to have autism? Of course not, but do any of us, really? She understands more than you might think. She knows that it’s an integral part of who she is, and that we love and accept her for who she is, and she’s happy. She can talk with a surprising amount of insight about the parts of autism that are wonderful and the parts that are tough, and I’m glad for that. Our kids have a lot inside them that we won’t see/hear unless we ask and watch and really listen.
    Connie, thank you for the encouragement and wisdom that you bring to families with autism, always.

  14. Connie says:

    I appreciate the affirming feedback Bobbi and knowing that my philosophy around telling children with Autism rings true to you. Thanks for sharing that precious story about your daughter’s disclosure to her babysitter – she sounds so matter-of-fact and confident, and don’t forget adorable!

  15. Connie says:

    I appreciate the positive feedback Lorna. Thank you!

  16. Connie, This is absolutely wonderful. In addition, I LOVE the story Christina shared here! It had me laughing and filled my eyes with tears. I would love to be able to connect with her and ask if she would guest post for my blog… Christina, if you are getting email responses to the comments on this post, click my name and it will lead you to my contact info (I think). It didn’t work for you though, so not sure if that feature is enabled here on this blog. :/
    Melody~

  17. Connie says:

    Melody – thank you for the positive feedback. I hope you and Christina get to connect.

  18. Jon says:

    I have heard the mac /pc analogy before but recently the same strategy was applied to a child who likes cars. The comparison between diesel powered or petrol was something the child could relate to and he understood they both have their merits.

  19. Hillary says:

    Christina
    Your son is brilliant and your story made me cry, thank you for sharing with us all. My son is now 15 and his aspergic Mac brain works like a charm. Is he different – yes. Do I love him all the more for it – yes… He astounds me :-)
    All the best.

  20. juleah says:

    Cindy,
    You wrote way back in March. But I just wanted to say that we thought our son had Autism and ADHD. But it turns out that it is not possible to have both. We go to UCLA our developmental pediatrician informed us that anyone who has diagnosed a child with both has not read the diagnostic manual. Our son’s sensory and anxiety issues “look like” ADHD and cause him to be very disruptive with his stims. I just wanted to let you know what we found out and maybe it can help. Your daughter may not be using ADHD as an excuse, she may really not be able to control herself, the same as our son. Have you heard of Brain Balance? We were told do to intensive CBT. If we do need to medicate for anxiety at any point, it would not be the same meds for ADHD and would be in conjuction with therapy and for a short duration. Anyway, Good Luck to you all!

  21. che says:

    My son is an adult and although he had issues as a child we never considered that there could be a name for it. Now that he is an adult (25) and I have met autistic people, something clicked in my head just th other day. i have spoke to a family member we are close to as one of his best friends is severely autistic. he has always thought my son showed signs of it but didn’t want to say anything. What do I do? My son is very sensitive so it must be delicately handled?
    Please, we need help. Thank you.

  22. Connie says:

    Che – I would first ask you why you feel there is a need to find a name for it and how it will help? If your son is coping well as an adult he has obviously learned strategies to function well in an NT world, IF he is on the spectrum. You need to be honest with yourself – is this an issue for you, or for him? If you feel that naming “it” will help him maximize his potential then I suggest starting with a general conversation about coping with life. You can start by sharing something you struggle with – if we dig deep enough we can all identify something we have difficulty with. If he identifies any challenges of his own you can then brainstorm why that might be – a brain that is wired differently? If you would like to discuss this further, please remember that I offer a free 15- min phone chat/consultation to parents, just click here to schedule – https://my.timedriver.com/MFCXL

  23. che says:

    Hi.Thanks for the reply. This is not an issue for me but he is a smart man who spends a lot of time “inside his head” and I’m pretty sure he wonders why he is different – and he is different.He won’t know how to bring up the subject though. He is also very sensitive and easily hurt. But you ahve got me thinking. he has found a way to get by so is it even necessary to speak to him!Oh dear am am so conflicted about this. You mention maximising his potential and I think that is the key; that is the reason I am even considering bringing the subject up.This is not soemthign I will do without very careful thought and research though. The last thing I want to do is give him a label and affect what confidence he has. Again, thank you; you have been very helpful with just a few sentences. Bless you

  24. Connie says:

    Che – It is good that you are thinking this through carefully. Here is another question to ponder. How will telling him help maximize his potential? Always glad to help!

  25. che says:

    Connie, i don’t know if telling him would maximize his potential. He knows he hates crowds, loud noise, dealing with strangers (he worked in retail sales for a time – a nightmare for him). He just doesn’t realise why. So I think you have a good point. Why tell him? He lives at home when all his friends are independent but it doesn’t bother him. So for now, I won’t say anything. I have spoken to my mom about all this (we are a very close family) and when I told her your thoughts on not telling him, she liked that answer very much. So..thank you for your help, we will keep this to ourselves unless he brings it up.

  26. Connie says:

    I am glad my question helped you make a decision, for now. This is a great example of customizing your solution to your child’s unique needs rather than what everyone else might think you should do. Always stay authentic to yourself and your child – let that be your guide.
    PS If he does bring it up make sure you have rehearsed how you will respond.

  27. che says:

    And the good advise contines! Thank you; I will make sure I’m prepared.

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