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How to explain autism to curious children

If your child stares, points or asks indiscreetly, “What’s wrong with that kid?” don’t feel ashamed. April is Autism Awareness Month so instead of shrinking with embarrassment, take advantage of that teachable moment and turn awkward exchanges into awareness-raising opportunities for our youngest generation.

Child with autism

“What’s wrong with her?” As a mother of a child diagnosed with severe autism, I am asked (or overhear) multiple variations of this question by other children regularly, usually to the mortification of their mothers.

If your child inquires a bit too loudly about another child’s differences, the reflexive response may be to duck the conversation, mumble an apology, reprimand your child’s poor manners, or whisk them away nonchalantly. Trust me — the awkwardness becomes more magnified for the other parent whose child is under scrutiny. Additionally, the message you’re conveying to your child is to avert his or her gaze and ignore the people we don’t understand; pretending they aren’t there.

Our own comfort level around neurodiverse individuals speaks volumes to our children. Mothers of all children can turn these missed opportunities into teachable moments that foster understanding and acceptance by using the tips below.

Take the lead

If possible, initiate an interaction when your child is curious. You will be amazed at how mutually beneficial and gratifying this first step can be. Simply start the conversation the way you would with anyone; people are people!

Be respectful

Remember, there are no universally-accepted rights and wrongs because everyone has different personalities. What one mother might appreciate, another mother could take offense to. Therefore, just be respectful and sincere. Almost all mothers appreciate any attempt as long as it’s born of kindness.

Make some acknowledgment

The goal is not necessarily to “say the right thing” but just say something. The parent of a child with autism often feels marginalized, misunderstood and/or judged when in public. Therefore, any eye contact, acknowledgment and positive conversation is typically welcomed.

Foster a connection

Introduce the two children. Encourage a greeting, even if it ends up being one-sided. Face-to-face interactions demystify all perceived differences.

Focus on the similarities

More important than identifying the diagnostic label is our ability to focus on strengths and commonalities rather than deficits and differences. Point out a pretty hair bow, a cool pair of light-up sneakers or other trait or interest. “Oh look, he likes the slide too! Maybe you can show each other how fast you each slide?”

Be sensitive

Choose your words carefully. Blogger and author Stephanie Nielson, scarred from burns on over 80 percent of her body, tells a story of a man who approached her with his child asking bluntly, “My son wants to know what’s wrong with you.” The man likely thought he was doing the right thing, yet his brash manner left Nielson feeling humiliated and sad.

Debrief privately

Talk to your child afterwards, perhaps in the car on the drive home. It’s important to educate young children on social etiquette, especially if he or she was pointing or staring or asking questions loudly. This conversation should be instructive, not punitive. Offer alternative suggestions for next time he or she sees someone different and has questions. Practice with a fun role play.

Creating meaningful interactions between typical children and their neurodiverse peers fosters a community that embraces differences and teaches acceptance to our future adults. The more positive we make these interactions, the more we all learn to celebrate and embrace the uniqueness of everyone.

More about children with special needs

No more Asperger’s: What it means for your child
Autism: I am your child
Online resources for children with special needs

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