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How to explain autism to kids

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If the past year has taught us anything, talking to children about diversity is vital in helping to raise thoughtful, sensitive kids. And those discussions should also expand to include conversations around neurodiversity, including autism.

The Center for Disease Control defines autism as “a developmental disability that can cause significant social, communication, and behavioral challenges.” It estimates that about one in 54 kids are autistic and explains that autism’s found in all racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic groups.

Whether your child is autistic or not, you shouldn’t ignore the subject. Talking about autism normalizes it. “When parents don’t talk about disability to their children, they reinforce the idea that disability is shameful or scary or bad,” says Lydia X.Z. Brown, an autistic attorney. 

Brown was diagnosed with autism when they were 13. 

“I didn’t know really what autism was. I don’t think most young children tend to,” says Brown. “The only ideas of autism that I had were very stereotypical…so even to the extent that I knew what autism was or that it existed, I wouldn’t have been aware that it might have applied to me.”

While Brown says the public’s understanding of autism has gotten better since their diagnosis, they say there’s still more ground to cover. They point to the use of labels like “low functioning” and “high functioning” to describe autistic people, which they say ignore the fact that autistic people’s characteristics and skills can fluctuate, even within the same day. These labels are “arbitrary” and “very harmful,” they explain, and can make it hard to find the right support.

Mashable spoke with Brown and experts who study autism and work with autistic children to learn about how you can navigate conversations about autism with your kids. 

1. Keep it simple

Often children question behavior associated with autism (even if they don’t use the actual word), when they see another kid act in a way they’ve never experienced before, says Dr. Grace Gengoux, director of the autism intervention clinic at Stanford University. For example, a classmate doesn’t answer immediately, or at all, when someone says their name. 

To explain this behavior, stick with simple wording like, “People are different and that’s OK. We can interact with them, but we might do it in different ways so we can include them.” 

If you want to add more details, Dr. Wendy Stone, who’s consulted with Sesame Street on the creation of Julia, an autistic muppet, suggests wording like, “An autistic child experiences the world in different ways. Loud noises might bother them or they might like to do things over and over again because it calms them.” 

Depending on the child’s age and development, you can also say, “Autistic children often don’t understand language well and they might not be able to communicate what they want or need super well.” 

Comparing the behavior with something they’d understand may also be helpful. For example, remind them how they suck their thumb or carry around their blanket (or did in the past) because it helps them feel safe. Tell them this is similar to what autistic children might do, for example, if they rock back and forth or carry around a stuffed animal (the latter isn’t exclusive to autistic children). 

You can teach autistic and non-autistic children about autism in the same way. However, it can be helpful to be more direct with autistic children, says Brown, because some (but not all) autistic people can miss subtleties or implicit cues.

Additionally, you can suggest concrete ways your child can help their autistic peers, like calling their names multiple times to get their attention or practicing patience if they have a temper tantrum. 

Those tips won’t work for all autistic children because there’s no one way to be autistic. Stone points to a phrase in the community: “If you’ve met one child with autism, you’ve met one child with autism.” Autistic people exhibit different characteristics depending on the person. For example, one autistic person could be fine in social situations but may be sensitive to loud noises while another struggles to socialize with people but isn’t bothered by a fire truck blaring its sirens.

While it’s not necessary to delve into these differences because it may confuse children, especially younger ones, you should educate yourself on the basics of autism. You don’t have to be an expert but fundamental knowledge can help you navigate questions that come your way. 

For example, if your child asks why autism exists, consider saying: “Autistic people are born that way and we don’t know exactly why,” says Brown. 

Like other complicated topics, such as racism, talking about autism likely won’t be a one-time conversation, says Gengoux. Consider incorporating  the topic into overall discussions around diversity and encourage children to embrace people’s differences.

2. Model behavior you want

If you espouse the importance of treating people with compassion, try your best to practice what you preach.

Take advantage of everyday situations to model  these behaviors. For example, if you and your child are at the bank and your bank teller has cerebral palsy, which can cause them to talk more slowly, be patient even if you’re frustrated. 

Later, discuss the interaction with your child. Say something like, “I found that really frustrating. But I realize it must also be difficult for the bank teller, who might deal with rude customers who say mean things about them. They can’t help how their voice sounds and they’re doing the best they can. I need to try to be more patient,” Brown suggests. 

Or if you’re at a grocery store and your child notices someone flapping their arms and mutters how weird it is, suggest why the person might act that way. Tell your kid it may feel good for them and this behavior is normal for some people, even if it isn’t how your child acts, says Brown.

3. Use art to foster understanding of  autistic children

Stone suggests parents of autistic children compile notebooks with drawings and photos to help their classmates understand their unique wants and needs.

For example, dedicate pages to your child’s likes and dislikes, their triggers and how they’re likely to react (e.g. run away when they hear a loud noise).

The notebooks describe the behavior from the child’s point of view in a way that other kids will understand, says Stone. “It’s like ‘I have autism and this is what it means for me. It’s not the same for everybody.'”

This tool can also help dismantle common misconceptions, like autistic children don’t want friends. While many autistic kids want to play with their peers, it might be more difficult for them to communicate in commonly-understood ways.

For example, an autistic child might like to play with trucks but is non-verbal. If their classmate knows this, they might give them a truck during playtime which could elicit a smile from the kid, says Gengoux. 

Gengoux agrees with the notebook approach but emphasizes focusing on a child’s strengths too, such as activities they’re good at and what they like to do. This can help reinforce their own skills and make them realize how they can use their interests to connect with other people.

Doing so also helps their peers see the autistic child as a whole person to help combat the negative stigma that could be associated with just focusing on deficits, says Gengoux.

4. Teach well-intentioned assumptions

Kids are kids, no matter if they’re autistic or not. To that end, don’t assume that everything an autistic child does is because of their autism, says Brown. This mindset grants a humanizing approach to autistic children.

“Teach children to assume that there is always a reason why an autistic person might be doing something that you or your child doesn’t understand or thinks is strange,” says Brown. 

We extend this empathy to other people all the time, says Brown. If a child comes to school upset, we usually assume there’s a reason for their behavior — maybe they woke up early or a kid bullied them on the bus. Take the exact same behavior and apply it to an autistic child, suddenly the assumption is the kid is exhibiting autistic behaviors, says Brown. 

Instead, teach your children that autistic kids can be mad or frustrated if something distressing happens to them and it might have nothing to do with being autistic. 

Above all, treat and talk about autistic people and, generally, people with disabilities, in a way that acknowledges their humanity, says Brown. 

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