Explaining Autism to Your Child
Many parents struggle with knowing to reveal their child’s autism diagnosis to him or her. Some parents even consider not telling their children at all. Every autistic child has different needs, so the exact times and details of how a diagnosis is best revealed may differ for each family. However, these guidelines will help you structure an approach that offers a foundation of positivity and acceptance for whenever the right time comes.
Should I Tell My Child He Has Autism?
Explaining autism to your child may seem unnecessary if he or she does not appear to be severely affected. Some parents may choose to hide a diagnosis for fear of the stigma associated with it. However, this decision and line of reasoning can be unintentionally damaging to your child later on in life.
Children who appear to be “cured” of autism or “outgrow their symptoms” often have learned how to act like neurotypicals. In other words, the autism hasn’t disappeared even though it may appear to the general public as if it doesn’t exist. So what’s the difference? Sometimes autistic people have to work harder at specific skills or behaviors that come naturally to neurotypicals. So even if a person appears to act non-autistic in one situation (hold a lengthy, coherent conversation, for example), he may have to apply a tremendous amount of effort. Acting neurotypical in a variety of situations all day is exhausting and unsustainable for most autistics. Eventually these children will grow up to realize that they are different somehow, even if many adults can’t notice it. If they don’t have an understanding of who they are and how their brain works, this may lead to confusion and frustration.
Similarly, some adults may not realize how their children will be affected as they grow. Symptoms that appear “mild,” when they are young can become more challenging as they grow. It is difficult to predict exactly how each autistic tendency will manifest itself. Something that doesn’t seem to be an issue during childhood may have a profound impact of their social lives as teenagers. It is unwise to hide a diagnosis with the assumption that autism will disappear.
Finally, children should know about their diagnosis so they can develop a sense of identity. Many individuals on the spectrum who were diagnosed later in life (as teenagers or adults) have written about how they felt a sense of peace and understanding when they discovered their diagnosis. It helped them understand the struggles they had experienced and realize that there were others in the world who were “like them.” All children deserve to know who they are, and understanding autism is essential to that discovery.
Explaining Autism to Your Child: When is the Right Time?
While there is no definitive right time for everyone, there are several guidelines to follow for deciding when to explain autism to your child:
- Begin when your child starts asking questions about himself or others– when he starts to notice that he is different. This is an indication that he is ready to begin the process of learning about how people are different in many ways, both in what we can see on the outside and how they think and feel on the inside.
- Try not to force the issue before your child is socially aware. He may not be able to understand what you want to discuss and this could create more confusion for him.
- Begin having conversations about autism before puberty. Puberty brings a whole new world of changes and transitions to all children, and autistic children need some kind of foundational identity before they undergo these changes. They will need more support than their neurotypical peers during this time, and delaying a diagnosis disclosure can add stress and confusion for children.
How Do I Tell My Child She Has Autism?
Some parents want to be in control of this conversation, while others feel more comfortable enlisting the help of a psychologist. However you choose to initiate the topic, remember that your approach can significantly impact his/her identity development. Consider the following guidelines when explaining autism to your child:
- Stay Positive– This is the essential mantra to remember when explaining autism to your child. Discuss how differences in personality and ability make the world a richer place. Don’t tell your child that autism is bad or that you’re sorry she has it. Your child will grow to understand her strengths and challenges more clearly. It is important at this point to make sure she receives this news about her identity with positivity (or neutrality) and acceptance.
- Emphasize Everyone’s Strengths and Challenges– Tell your child that everyone has things they are good at and things they struggle with or work harder at to accomplish. It may even help to have your child (along with the rest of your family) to write down a list of her strengths and challenges. Tell her that her challenges may be different than those of her family or friends, but so are her strengths, and everyone’s differences make the world a lot more interesting.
- Don’t Explain Everything At Once– Developing an autistic identity should be a gradual process. Start emphasizing that everyone has differences even before the diagnosis is mentioned. When you finally start explaining autism to your child, she will already have an understanding of everyone’s uniqueness and can build on how this uniqueness relates to her own identity.
- Introduce Your Child to Other Autistics– After your child has familiarized herself with autism and how it affects her, you may want to try introducing her to other autistics. You can find other autistic children through the school system or specific groups or clubs organized for individuals on the spectrum. Your child won’t necessarily get along with someone else just because they share an autism diagnosis, but it does help to offer broad societal exposure. They may feel more comfortable with their diagnosis when they realize there are a lot of other people out there who act and think similarly to them.
As your child grows older, autistic mentors and role models can help your child learn to self-advocate and offer tips for transitioning through life changes such as school graduations and entering the workforce. Exposing your child to more autistic voices will help her both find camaraderie and demonstrate to her that you value autistic people.
More Resources for Explaining Autism to Your Child
- Welcome to the Autistic Community– This book has two versions (for adolescents and adults) and is available through the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network (ASAN). It helps adolescents and adults understand their diagnosis in a positive way and learn more about their rights and how to find resources.
- Should You Tell Your Child About His/Her Autism Diagnosis?–This is a video interview of Stephen Shore, an autistic professor and autism expert, who discusses the importance of explaining autism to your child and offers several guidelines for how you should present information about the diagnosis.