Talking to Your Child About Autism

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Discussing autism with your child can be challenging, whether they are diagnosed themselves or need to be aware of autism amongst classmates and friends. In this post, our expert details some useful tips for you to keep in mind when you start to introduce your child to autism.

Autism diagnoses across the world are happening quicker than ever before, which means that raising awareness and helping people to understand the condition is becoming increasingly important. A vital part of awareness is educating others who do not have autism, as well as those who do. 

Since 70% of autistic children are educated in mainstream schools, it is highly likely that your child will come across a classmate with autism. Therefore, making all children aware of autism and the experiences that these children have is key.  If everyone became more aware of autism, together we could create a more autism-friendly world and education system that considers each person’s individual needs and provides them with ample opportunity to thrive. 

Things to consider when discussing autism with your child:

  • Be creative but simple with your explanation; use examples and analogies when explaining autism to a typically developing child.
  • Keep the conversation positive by focusing on your child’s abilities and how they can help others – When explaining autism in a particular child, keep the conversation positive, focus on their abilities and how we might support them.
  • Explain why some children may have classroom aids and encourage helping them
  • Encourage your child to get involved with autism awareness events and activities

If you want to play your part and get involved by talking to your child about autism, here are seven useful tips that will make the process easier.:

1. Keep it simple

Autism can present differently depending on the individual, and can also present alongside other conditions. When explaining autism to a child, although it is important to explain the differences that can appear across the spectrum, try to keep your explanation relatively simple.

Cover the basics such as social skills, repetitive behaviors, and routine, as well as the most common autistic traits. Explain that children with autism can experience heightened senses, and sometimes when there are too many things going on at once, this can trigger discomfort and anxiety.

Whether you are sharing about your own child with autism or one of their classmates, try to refer to the individual’s specific presentation of autism to help your child understand it better. Not every child with autism will present in the same way, and abilities will vary greatly. Help your child understand another child’s specific abilities and answer any questions they might have about what they have noticed about them. 

2. Use analogies when talking to your child about autism

Although some children with autism will not understand analogies and metaphors and would prefer simpler, more direct language, when explaining autism to a typically developing child, using an analogy can prove quite useful.

Below are some helpful analogies you could use:

The computer system analogy

Having autism is like being a Mac laptop amongst a world of PCs. Ultimately, both machines do the same thing, but they have different operating systems, menus and keyboard commands. It can be difficult for Macs to communicate effectively with PCs as not all the software is compatible, but it is possible to find a way to make both machines talk to one another. With this analogy, you  can use computer viruses to explain mental health difficulties (all computers, including Macs and PCs, can get viruses from time to time).

If you have a child with autism and mental health difficulties, discuss with a professional how siblings and classmates can help support them as part of a holistic mental health care plan.

The red, yellow, and white TV cable

In the back of your TV you will notice 3 coloured wires plugged in. The red wire connects the audio on the left side of the TV, the white wire connects the audio on the right side of the TV and the yellow wire connects the image with colour.

Now imagine if you did not put the wires in the right place, they are all plugged in but your experience of the video/images on the TV may not be complete. You may only hear audio from one side or get a distorted black and white image. The equipment is all there; there is nothing missing – your TV is simply wired a little differently.

The Coke Can Analogy

To help your child understand what is happening when a child with autism is being overwhelmed, you can use the Coke can analogy. Imagine that every time a child with autism carries out an exercise or task that requires energy and concentration, a Coke can is being shaken slightly. As the day goes on, the Coke can is shaken more and more, and the pressure builds. If there is too much going on at once, this can cause the can to shake more vigorously. Sometimes, it is possible to let the fizz out a little at a time, but occasionally it can overwhelm the can and cause it to explode.

3. Let them know there are others just like them, including adults

Let your child know that there are many people in the world with autism, and they can vary greatly in terms of ability and age. It’s highly likely that they will meet people with autism throughout their life, and the earlier they understand this, the better. 

It can help to use famous people as examples to help your child put well-known faces to descriptions of autism.  Examples include Susan Boyle (singer), Tim Burton (movie director), and Bill Gates (co-founder of the Microsoft Corporation).

4. Focus on their abilities

Common descriptions of autism can tend to explain what a child cannot do and how this sets them apart from other children. Although it is important for your child to understand the needs of an autistic child, what can be helpful for them and what might be distressing, focusing on differences can create a barrier between how a typically developing person might relate to someone with autism.

Instead, highlight what the child can do. Focusing on the abilities of a child with autism and what things they enjoy can help your child find common interests with them. 

For example, an autistic child might not have developed verbal language, but enjoys kicking a football around and playing in the sandpit.

Encourage your child to learn about how someone with autism communicates. Language abilities can vary greatly amongst those with autism – many may not develop verbal language skills at all, and communicate only with non-verbal gestures.

Encourage your child to learn how to engage with an autistic child by observing their specific way of communicating. For example, your child might notice that the child with autism in their class responds well when the teacher uses pointing in an exaggerated way to get the attention of a child with autism, or they may just use simpler, more direct language.

5. Talk about school

As 70% of children with autism are taught in mainstream schools, it is likely your child will meet a child with autism at school. Explaining how a child with autism may have differential needs, and what your child can do to make that environment friendly for them, can be extremely valuable for the autistic child.

Sensory overload at school

It is not uncommon that a child with autism can become overwhelmed with sensory overload. Explain to your child how autistic people can experience senses more intensely compared to them, and how this can trigger anxiety and occasionally what might look like a meltdown or a tantrum. Encourage your child to learn about certain triggers and soothing techniques.

Classroom aids for children with autism

If your child is attending a class with an autistic child,  it can be helpful to read up on adjustments made to support a child with autism in the classroom. This way,  your child will be able to understand why their classmate has certain aids that aren’t available to them.

6. Discuss how can they help other children with autism

Whether you’re explaining autism to your child because they know a classmate or have a sibling with the condition,  encourage them to build skills to support the autistic child and learn how to engage with them. Often, children with autism can feel unapproachable to those who don’t understand their condition, and this can feel quite marginalising. Include them in your child’s treatment plan.

If you are talking to your child about a sibling’s autism, then involve them in the assessment and treatment plan. If you are seeing a professional for a specialist holistic child autism assessment, involving important people in that child’s life within the plan can prove more effective.

Share what you know

Learn more about how you can help your child with autism and share this information with siblings and classmates so that they know what they can do to help.  Have an open discussion about how your child presents, what they enjoy doing, what upsets them, and what they need when they feel they feel that way. If siblings and classmates know how to adjust and engage with your child, then they are more likely to do so.

7. Encourage them to get involved with supporting autistic people in the community

There are lots of community organisations that hold events during the year to increase awareness of autism. These events can involve the whole family and can be a great way to teach your child about autism.

Family events

On your local council website, you should be able to find an extensive list of national and local organisations that organise and hold regular fund-raising events for people with autism. The events provide a good opportunity for you and your family to get to know other families with an autistic child and learn about the condition.

Volunteering

There are also lots of opportunities to volunteer with organising such events, or to simply attend play clubs with other autistic children and help. This might not be something your child could do at a young age, but they may get some valuable insight into your experience of volunteering.

If you think that your child might have autism, take our child autism test to see if your child could benefit from professional support.

Mavish Sikander

Mavish Sikander

Mavish is a BABCP Accredited CBT and EMDR Therapist and CBT Clinical Lead at Psymplicity.

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