Since one in every 110 children is diagnosed with autism, your child is likely to encounter a number of children with the disorder. How you response to your child’s questions significantly impacts your child’s understanding of this complex disorder, as well as his or her acceptance of individuals with different disabilities. Here are some suggestions to help your child understand autism.
Be honest. If you don’t know a lot about autism, tell your child that you don’t know but are willing to find out. Take advantage of your child’s curiosity and seek resources to help. Many children’s books explain autism in a way that young children can understand. Websites contain helpful information for children, parents, and providers.
Know that every child is different. Autism is a spectrum, so no two children with autism are alike. A child with autism might have areas of exceptional talent, as well as areas of deficit. Help your child understand that autism presents itself in variable ways.
Put a positive spin on it. Be careful not to describe individuals with autism as lacking in some important way. Focus on the positive and describe what your child can do to help. For example, say, “Tony is an excellent artist. You can talk about his drawings with him by asking him specific questions.”
When relaying an area of challenge for the child with autism, help your child relate to the experience. You might say, for example: “Remember how it was hard to hear me at the airport over the background noise? Tony is hearing all of the background noises in the classroom and has difficulty paying attention to just your voice. Why don’t you sit down and face him when you talk to him?”
Talk to the child’s parent. Ask the parent for suggestions about how to help your child to interact in a way that will engage the other child. You can also learn about the child’s interests and the share suggestions with your child about conversation starters.
Parents of children with autism seek good peer role models for their children in order to improve their language and social skills. Finding willing peers to interact with their children is challenging, so this could be a good opportunity for your child to be a good influence.
Encourage interaction. If the child acts out or must leave a play date early, reassure your child that this does not mean that he or she did anything wrong. Schedule future play dates so that your child can see the positive effects of his or her interaction over time.