Explaining Autism To Neurotypical Children
As the rate of autism diagnoses increases, children and teens undoubtedly know, or have encountered, someone with autism in their schools, in their neighborhoods, or in their own family. As a result, kids most likely have noticed some differences. They may have wondered: “Why is he covering his ears?” “Why won’t he talk to me?” “Why does she move her hands like that?”
Autism Spectrum Disorder is a complex condition that many adults have difficulty understanding. So how can children learn to comprehend the many facets of this condition when they see it in their siblings or peers? We have put together some helpful tips and resources to aid you in explaining autism to neurotypical children in your family, your classroom and your community.
If your child, neighbor or student in your classroom asks some of these questions, it’s important to answer them. When questions go unanswered or they are told not to ask things like that, not only do we squelch their innate curiosity of the world around them, but it can lead to inaccurate or negative assumptions. They may think their friend is crazy or their sister doesn’t like them. By answering their questions you pave the way to understanding instead of allowing misconceptions or fear to take root in the unknown.
What is Autism?
As explained by Mary L Gavin, MD on KidsHealth.org, “Autism spectrum disorder is a difference in the way a kid’s brain develops. Kids with autism may have trouble understanding the world around them.” One of the most common questions from kids is “Can I catch autism?” So it’s important to explain that autism can’t be caught like the flu.
Here are some simple ways to describe autism. A classmate or friend with autism might have trouble talking and learning the meaning of words. They may struggle making friends or fitting in. They may not handle changes easily, like trying new foods or having a substitute teacher. Additionally, they may have trouble dealing with loud noises, bright lights, or busy hallways.
Some kids with autism might move in an unusual way (like flapping their hands, or rocking back and forth) or do the same thing over and over (like saying the same word).
And because autism is a spectrum or range, some autistic kids may have a few struggles, or they may have a lot of these struggles. As a result, some kids need a little bit of help, and others might need a lot of help with learning and doing everyday activities.
When you have conversations with students or siblings, here are a few recommendations to keep in mind.
Focus on the positive
Talk about the child’s strengths, abilities and interests, not just on their struggles. Using people-first language puts the focus on the individual and not their diagnosis. This also helps them view autism through a more positive lens. If possible, identify a common interest to demonstrate ways they can connect with their classmate or sibling.
A child’s curiosity and questions are not rude. When you answer a child’s questions in a straightforward manner, they will learn from your example to be open and accepting. Also be sure to communicate that autism is not something to fear and it doesn’t need to be kept a secret.
We all are unique
Every one of us looks different and has our own unique strengths and weaknesses. And with autism being a spectrum, there are no two kids with autism that are alike. So it’s important to not lump them all together. Rather, get to know the individual, and as mentioned above, find things you may have common with them.
The Gaming System Analogy
A mom spoke with her son’s 3rd grade class about autism and used an analogy that has become quite popular over the years since. Essentially, she talked about how video game devices have different operating systems. You can’t play an Xbox game on a Nintendo because it can’t process the information. So just like video game systems, people with autism can’t process information in the same way a neurotypical person does. It’s not bad, just different. You can read the full account on her blog here.
Explaining a Sensory Meltdown to a Child
witnessing a sensory meltdown can be confusing and even upsetting for adults, let alone kids. So explaining what a sensory meltdown is can help a child process what they’ve seen. It’s not a temper tantrum when they aren’t getting their way. A sensory meltdown is a feeling of being overwhelmed – by sounds, smells, lights, spaces. There is too much happening around them and their brain can’t process it. Sometimes our brains need a break from what’s going on around us. But as the sibling or friend gets to know what stimuli the person with autism reacts too, they can become an ally in helping them if they become overwhelmed.
Using Stories to Explain Autism
A story can be a powerful way to communicate ideas and messages to children. Thankfully, there are many books created to explain autism and help kids understand it. Here are just a few:
- A Friend Like Simon
- Autism Is…?
- My Brother Charlie
- I See Things Differently
- Leah’s Voice
- Why Does Izzy Cover Her Ears?
- Looking After Louis
- Tacos Anyone?
- All My Stripes
Even after you explain autism to siblings of kids with autism, they can benefit from being able to process their emotions with a professional. We have programs that serve the entire family including counseling for siblings of autistic children. For more information, fill out the Contact Us form and a member of our team will get back with you.
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