It's not the first time I've been asked this question by an innocent child at the playground. It doesn't get any easier to hear though. Each time I choke on my own spit, my heart enlarges and pounds, and at the base of my amygdala I can feel the Mama Bear just wanting to come out and ask the little brat what's wrong with him..
But it passes.
In all honesty, kids are great because they notice something different and they have no filter so they ask. I'd rather educate than just be stared at or have heads shaking at us, which isn't uncommon among adults.
So every time this question makes my Fight or Flight response kick in (generally the fight option) I breathe and I take the chance to educate. It generally goes down something like this:
Well, there is nothing "wrong" with him. But he does have something called autism and it just makes his brain work a little differently than yours or mine.
Sometimes that's enough and they go right back to playing alongside him, especially if they are under the age of 6. As they get older they'll ask more questions which is why last year I decided to take it upon myself to start educating his classmates right at the school about autism. I developed a 23 page powerpoint that gives the basics of autism, how Brian is still a lot like them, experiments for them to understand what it must feel like to not be able to talk and to have sensory overload, and how they can be a good friend to Brian.
Important things to remember when talking with children about autism:
- Autism is different, not less. Reiterate all of the things the child can do just the same (maybe even better). I always tell the kids how Brian is an awesome swimmer (better than his big brother!), has an amazing memory and can tell us how to get to his favorite train museum which is over an hour away, and that he likes to ride horses!
- He still has the same knowledge other kids do but the wires in his brain are just connected differently than ours. So his information has to go through road blocks and alternative routes before he can get it to come out. It's a lot of hard work for him to access that information sometimes.
- Autism is not contagious. This is a big one for that 7-12 age range. They really don't know.
I feel strongly in this presentation. I have had several children approach me when they see me at the school to say, "I remember when you taught me about autism. That was so cool." Brian has been in this public school system for five years now and we haven't had any experiences of children being cruel towards him. In fact, it's the opposite. Whenever he joins his regular peers, kids fight over who get to work with him. They make posters and cheers for him when it's Special Olympics time. They stop me in the hall to tell me if they heard him say a new word. They are so proud of his accomplishments.
When children ask "What's wrong with him?" they aren't asking to be rude; they are asking because they really want to know why the big 9 year old at the playground can't talk or is crying over something they deem trivial.
Take the time to talk to your children about autism and other different abilities. Education is what will rid our world of hate crimes, segregation, stereotypes, and such. Don't hush your child when they ask an embarrassing question about why someone is different. Help them learn why they're different but why that doesn't make them less.
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