Autism can be tricky to understand, even for adults. Explaining autism to a child can sometimes feel daunting. Will they understand it? How do you describe autism to a child in a way that they can grasp?
Part of the challenge lies in the fact that people with a diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder may experience vastly different manifestations of autism. Some may experience repetitive behaviors, others may struggle with eye contact and other social skills. Some children with autism may struggle with loud noises, and others may not. Some children may be nonverbal.
There’s no such thing as a universal autism definition for kids.
That doesn’t mean that we should avoid talking about autism with kids. Nearly every child will know someone on the autism spectrum, so it can be an important thing for them to know about. Here are eight tips for how autism can be explained to kids in a way that can help them to understand.
1. Keep things simple
Children are generally far more capable of understanding complex things than they are often given credit for. Even so, when explaining autism to kids, it is best to keep it simple. Likely a child doesn’t need to know the ins and outs of behavioral neuroscience, or specifics about how the brain develops.
It may be enough for children to know that people with an autism diagnosis have certain tendencies that make them unique, but that EVERYONE is different and that’s ok! Autism counselor Kelly Ernsperger suggests that for very young children a conversation like “‘Timmy flaps his hands because he was born with autism. When he is excited or stressed, he sometimes flaps his hands to help calm himself down,’” may be a solid approach.
2. Allay fears
If a child is fearful or upset to learn that a friend has an ASD diagnosis, or for children with ASD themselves, it’s important to calm their fears. Explain that autism isn’t like a cold or flu, and that it’s simply something that some people are born with.
3. Normalize difference
A part of any conversation explaining autism to a child should be an effort to help the child understand that difference is a part of life. Talking about neurodiversity, like talking about race, gender, and other diversity topics, should be an ongoing and long-term discussion. The better a kid understands that people with ASD aren’t “weird,” just different, the better friends they can be.
Take time to reinforce the incredible beauty of diversity, and the humanity of those a child interacts with.
4. Model accepting behavior
Often the best way to help a child understand how to be around friends with autism is to model accepting and empathetic behavior yourself. Try to make a point of being patient and compassionate with those around you. If you encounter a challenging situation with your child, talk about how it made you feel, and how you worked to be accepting.
5. Look to art, media, and books
Sometimes these conversations can still be complex and challenging. Fortunately, there are some incredible resources out there that help foster the discussion.
Art can be very helpful for children with autism to express their inner worlds. Dr. Wendy Stone, who helped consult with Sesame Street on the creation of an autistic character), suggests that “parents of autistic children compile notebooks with drawings and photos to help their classmates understand their unique wants and needs.” These notebooks can contain pictures and drawings that can help a child to communicate with others.
There are a number of excellent and informed depictions of children with autism on television. Characters like Sesame Street’s Julia, or Carl from PBS’s Arthur, can be very helpful for explaining autism to kids.
Mediated depictions of autism can become safe avenues for discussion. They can help describe autism to a child in ways that are not tied to an actual person (instead to a puppet and a cartoon, respectively), which can make a critical analysis a bit more comfortable. And in each of the cases referenced above, the characters were informed by autism experts.
Similarly, there are a number of excellent and well-informed books that can help with explaining autism to a child. Books like Leah’s Voice (by Lori Demonia, and Illustrated by Monique Turchan), or My Friend Has Autism, (by Amanda Doering Tourville, illustrated by Kristin Sorra) are great discussion starters.
6. Talk about behaviors
As we described above, everyone with an autism diagnosis will experience it a bit differently. There is no single way to have autism. Part of explaining autism to kids is helping them to identify which behaviors they may be seeing (or experiencing) are a part of living with autism, and which ones are a part of being a kid.
Help your child to understand that teasing someone for their behavior isn’t kind, but that someone with autism may not understand even good-natured teasing.
7. Set expectations
When possible, helping a child understand what they might expect from a friend or classmate with autism can be very helpful in explaining autism to kids. Even relatively simple statements like “Bobby might become upset if you take his toy,” or “sometimes Kelly gets unusually upset over minor things” can go a long way. This can be particularly helpful with larger signs of autism, like non-verbal behaviors or limited communication skills.
8. Reinforce friendliness and support
Perhaps the most important part of explaining autism to kids is reminding them that children with autism are kids, just like them. Children with autism want to be loved and accepted, they want to be treated kindly. As KidsHealth puts it, kids with autism are “proud of who they are and they want to be accepted, even though they may have different strengths and weaknesses than most other people.”
If you have a child that may benefit from help with autism and other developmental conditions, learn about our ABA therapy methods and programs.