Article written by: Kristi Hansen
Autism Spectrum Disorder can be a complex and multi-faceted condition that is hard to explain to adults — much less children. However, those who have children with autism in their classrooms, on their sports teams, in their neighborhoods and in their own families undoubtedly do pick up on some differences. Why does he move his hands like that? Why is she covering her ears? Why won’t he get off the computer?
Where to start?
First, it is important that adults and parents do address the topic. Unanswered questions or quieted curiosities may lead children to draw negative and/or inaccurate conclusions. “My brother is crazy”. “That girl doesn’t like me”. “He’s a mean boy”; may be a few thoughts that come to mind when misconception takes the place of understanding.
Simply put, “Every day, our brains interpret (understand) the things we see, smell, hear, taste, touch, and experience. But when someone’s brain has trouble interpreting these things, it can make it hard to talk, listen, understand, play, and learn” (Walters 2016). So a friend with autism is just as smart as other kids, but he may have a harder time making friends, following directions, or dealing with change. He may be very sensitive to loud sounds, certain textures or foods, but may really enjoy the way it feels to flap his hands or spin around. Autism is not a disease and it is not contagious — it just means that the brain operates a little differently.
In approaching these conversations with peers, siblings, and the child who is affected by autism, keep these guidelines in mind:
- Focus on the child’s abilities, strengths and passions, not just on struggles or limitations
- Encourage curiosity and questions. Autism is not something to be afraid of, and it does not have to be a secret.
- Rather than say this: “Don’t point at him, Don’t look at him, or Leave him alone.” (This teaches your child to ignore their curiosity to learn about others).
- You should say this: “That’s how he plays, He likes the way that sounds, He likes the way that feels, or Let’s go say hello.”
- Answer your child’s questions with confidence so that they can follow your model of acceptance
- Communicate that “It’s going to be okay” though that doesn’t mean it will be simple or easy.
EVERYONE IS DIFFERENT
“If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.”
- Autism is a spectrum disorder, meaning that it affects everyone a little differently. Some children who have autism do not speak, while others have a hard time knowing when to stop speaking!
- Everyone has different strengths and weaknesses. “Chris” might be a great athlete but struggles in reading, while “Charlie” has a fantastic memory for dinosaur names but has a hard time understanding other people’s emotions. We can all learn and grow in our areas of weakness and celebrate our strengths.
- Encourage neurotypical peers and siblings to consider the ways they are similar and different from a person in their lives who has autism. “We both love to watch Thomas the Train, and we both love macaroni and cheese. But he is really good at building with Legos, and I am really good at basketball.”
USE METAPHORS AND ANALOGIES
Metaphors are a great way to use familiar experiences to explain something unfamiliar
- One mom created a great metaphor, explaining that having autism is like having a “hairdryer brain” in a world made for “toaster brains” — read her story here.
- Game System Analogy: What would happen if you took a game meant for one game system and put it in another? (Merryday 2013).
- Imagine if all of your communication with other people was through tone deaf emails or text messages. Is this message supposed to be serious or sarcastic? “Without the verbal tones and facial cues most of us rely on for message interpretation, it’s not uncommon to misread intent” (Allred 2016). Some individuals with autism live in this reality, struggling to understand emotions and facial expressions.
COMMUNICATE THROUGH STORY
Sometimes, the most profound lessons are taught through story. A message can be more clearly received after resonating with a character and their struggles than if the message was delivered outright. Here is a brief list of some books created for just this purpose:
- Autism Is…?
- Leah’s Voice
- Why Does Izzy Cover Her Ears?
- My Brother Charlie
- Keisha’s Doors
- Tacos Anyone?
- All My Stripes
For young adults:
For children on the spectrum:
TAILOR YOUR EXPLANATION TO THE INDIVIDUAL
- It’s easiest to understand the affects of autism when you can point to instances from the child’s own experiences.
- “You know how Johnny doesn’t look at you when he’s talking to you? That’s because having autism might make it hard for him to do that.”
- “Autism may help to explain why changing schedules and routines is so difficult for you, but it also helps make you so creative!”
Allred, S. (2016). Parent tips: Explaining autism using everyday examples. Retrieved from http://www.pathfindersforautism.org/articles/view/parent-tips-explaining-autism-using-everyday-examples
Merryday, L. (2013). How to explain autism to typical kids (and lots of others while you’re at it) [Web log post]. Retrieved December 28, 2016 from http://www.whattoexpect.com/wom/family-life/how-to-explain-autism-to-typical-kids-and-lots-of-others-while-you-re-at-it.aspx
Walters, R.S. (2016, July). Autism. Retrieved from www.kidshealth.org/en/kids/autism.htm