It's not always easy to know what to say or do around someone with autism — and how to explain the disorder in simple terms a child can understand. Here are a few tips to make the conversation easier.
Explain what autism is
Try using a simple explanation like this: Autism is a disorder that makes it hard for a person to deal with the world around them. A sound like the school bell ringing, which may not bother most kids, may sound like nails on a chalkboard to a child with autism. A tag in a T-shirt might feel like an terribly itchy sweater. The sunlight outside might feel like a flashlight has been just shined into their eyes. Autism is like walking around with your nails cut too short and your shoes on the wrong feet. Every. Single. Day.
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Help your child connect with kids with autism
Many children with autism have a favorite “thing” — sometimes it's an actual object, sometimes it's something they're very interested. Encouraging your child to find out what that interest may be is a great way to help them connect. At the same time, it is important that your child knows not to take things from a person with autism. Often they are carrying their favorite thing because it makes them feel secure. When it comes to playing with friends with autism, teach your children to leave their toys alone unless they offer them, and give them back when they ask to avoid unnecessary stress for either child.
Help your child understand behaviors
Individuals with autism may not only have difficulties coping with the world around them; they also can have a hard time communicating their feelings. When they are upset or overwhelmed they may make loud noises, spin, run, jump or demonstrate other repetitive behaviors. This is the only way they are able to communicate at that moment, and the best thing your child can do is give their friend space. More often than not, kids who have a friend with autism are able to discover the cause of a meltdown before an adult can. It is great for such sensitivity and awareness to develop in young children.
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Make sure your child sees a person, not a disability
This is true for people with any kind of special needs, not just autism. Sometimes our children may be curious about behaviors they see or students who look different for one reason or another. Almost every parent has had that moment where their child stares for a little too long. In those cases, you can try to find something about that person your child can relate to. For example, if you see a little girl with a sparkly backpack on who is spinning and making sounds, point out her backpack and mention to your child how neat it is. This technique helps initiate interaction and helps your child get over their fear of unfamiliar behaviors.
Children are growing up in a world much more diverse than that of previous generations. If you model acceptance and understanding, not only will you raise kind, supportive individuals but they will be better prepared for their future in a world of uniquely able people.
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