Wrapping your head around Autism as an adult is a challenge in itself. But trying to explain it to kids is a whole different thing. Us, as adults, can conceptualize situations & give the benefit of the doubt - really try to understand. However, kids don’t see it that way. They don’t really understand that someone can be a little different, let alone why. So how can we help?
As parents, we need to expose our kids to other kids. We experienced this when we started Jackson at his in home daycare. At that point, J wasn’t diagnosed but we all knew he had little quirks. One of them being his attraction to ears. Jackson is nonverbal so there’s no communication & he’s also working on his social skills. He will go right up to someone, doesn’t matter what they’re doing, & reach up to grab their earlobe to rub. There are SO many things that can be interpreted as bad in these situations: invasion of personal space, not asking permission, could be in the middle of doing something, etc.
When he started at the daycare, Brittanee [runs the daycare] & I had to explain to the kids that Jackson does some things a little different. This served as an opportunity to teach kids that not all kids think or do things the same. This was a chance for us, as adults, to learn how to explain it to others as well. Since he started daycare over 6 months ago, he’s gotten along even better with the kids, they know his quirks & even explain to each other what he needs.
In our own little way, we’ve educated our group & their kids on a person with Autism & so hopefully when they meet others in the future, they’ll have some background knowledge on how to approach them. Below, I’ve listed 5 tips on how to have that conversation.
EXPLAIN WHAT AUTISM IS
Ok, until kids know what autism is, they’ll continue to describe it as ‘weird’. So you should explain it. Obviously, you can’t hold a 5 year olds attention with “it’s a neurological disorder” because it’ll go right over their head. So how can you say it?
Everyone looks a little different so they can also think differently too! People with Autism have brains that see the world differently & sometimes act in a different way as well. Really breaking it down to simple terms can help them understand. Some comparative examples are; when some people with Autism get excited, they shake parts of their body, if they don’t speak to you, don’t take it personal, etc.
TALK ABOUT DIFFERENT NEEDS & WHAT’S REALLY “FAIR”
This one is pretty important. Sometimes, kids with Autism can look like they’re getting special privileges like getting to play with certain toys or not being disciplined for a tantrum or making a loud sound. Basically, not being held to the same standards as others. & I GET IT. Especially as a kid, that concept is hard to understand.
I recently heard of the comparison to glasses. Talk about a family member or friend that wears glasses. Explain how they use glasses because they have difficult time seeing but not everyone wears them because they can see without them. MAKES SO MUCH SENSE! That same concept can be applied to kids with Autism. They can use fidgets or have quirks to help them while others don’t.
Sometimes fair doesn’t mean the same. Sometimes it means leveling the playing field & teaching this to our kids early on is a great tool to have.
MELTDOWNS & HOW THEY CAN RESPOND
This goes along with what’s fair - meltdowns are probably the common ground when it comes to kids. Thankfully, Jackson’s aren’t anywhere near as severe as I’ve heard. If anything, they’re minor. He’ll dead weight or randomly throw his body back until he’s on the ground. Then he’s DOWN. Try to pick him up then he’ll start to lose it & cry - basically like a baby. So when the other kids see this & see he doesn’t get in trouble when he acts this way, it can be confusing.
This is the opportunity to explain what a meltdown is, rather than a tantrum. You could describe it as a time when they, the kid, were tired & just one thing set them off. Well with kids with Autism, they don’t have full control over their threshold OR how they respond. Teaching kids how to react when meltdowns happen can not only help them understand why but possibly assist in the situation.
CREATE INCLUSIVE ENVIRONMENTS
Did you know neurotypical & atypical kids used to be kept apart? For fear of it ‘rubbing off’, they were just kept separate to keep everyone happy. SO DUMB but that’s the past. We’ve always included Jackson in pretty much everything we do everywhere we go. We’ve only had Jackson’s diagnosis for half a year but looking back on it, we’ve always know J was a handful in public [short attention span, HE’S A RUNNER, doesn’t respond to his name when he runs off, we always need to have a free hand to grab him, etc].
The daycare we go to is a small one & he is the only one with Autism. But we didn’t let that stop us from moving forward. We see it as an opportunity to teach others, which is EXACTLY what this entry’s purpose is. There are some families & kids that don’t even want to put the thought or effort in that someone is different so inclusion is appreciated. This is an opportunity for both kids & parents to learn.
For example, if you’re hosting a party, think of sensory things like food, smells or sounds. Take into account different needs or triggers & provide something that doesn’t exclude. With the other kids, prepare them for certain behaviors [from quirks to nonverbal or random yelling to meltdowns] & how to not treat them like they’re weird. Learning the concept of inclusion at an early age can assist personal development as they grow & becomes second nature by adulthood.
Using books is a great way to bridge the gap with kids & talk about harder topics. If you’re like us, you read to you read to your kid every night to help them fall asleep. So we have our go-to’s that we know by heart then our others that we only pull out for a special occasion. We will start reading to both of them soon [we haven’t yet because they go to sleep at different times] & we will have some that incorporate Jackson’s Autism because we don’t necessarily want him to just experience it through his brother, we want to normalize it through characters he’s heard of.
Here is a link to 17 Children’s Books that promote the understanding of Autism. We’re currently in the process of building J’s library so I’m looking into more diverse books to read to him. I highly suggest doing the same for your kids as well.
Deciding to put J in daycare was a massive decision that we believed would help J grow in his development. To a degree it has but not on the level of actual therapy. However, it does present the opportunity to educate others of his condition & how to normalize ASD :) So there you have it! I hope this assists someone in talking to their own kids about Autism, or at least start the conversation. GOOD LUCK!