As your child grows up and interacts with more peers their age, they will often gradually realise that they are different from many of their friends around them. Children are sensitive to the frustration and confusion of others, and naturally compare their actions and feelings to others’ (Dundon, 2017). However, they may come to the wrong conclusion about their perceived differences, for example, thinking of themselves as ‘stupid’ or ‘bad’. This may cause them to create a harmful and negative self-image based on those differences. Letting your child know that they have autism might help in explaining to them why they are different, and prevent them from developing negative self-talk. With knowledge of their diagnosis, your child will be able to understand themselves better, boosting their self-esteem and confidence when facing various judgments and difficulties.
Your child’s personality, abilities, differences, and social awareness are some factors that come into play when deciding when your child is ready to know that they have autism. People with autism have shared that it is best to let your child know as early on as possible, before any negative experiences imprint harmfully on their memory and shape their personality (12 Autistic Adults Answer, 2022). Here are 4 guidelines on how to have ‘the talk’ with your child:
1. Share information that is personally relevant to your child
Since autism lies on a spectrum, every child with autism is unique with a differing combination of strengths and weaknesses. Your child is likely still young, and may struggle to internalise all the available information about autism. Rather than overloading your child with all the information, start by picking out points that are personally relevant and meaningful to your child. This will help them relate what you shared to their personal experiences, and allow them to understand their diagnosis more easily. For example, you can say, ‘when it is hard for you to stop playing that game, that is because of your autism. Sometimes people who have autism have really strong interests.’. Focus on information that is developmentally appropriate, as it is not necessary to tell your child everything about autism in one sitting.
2. Choose an appropriate time and place
Ideally, have the conversation when you and your child are calm and happy. Your child might find it hard to process the new information if they are already feeling anxious or are in an unfamiliar environment. Ensure that you and your child have ample time to talk things through without interruptions, since they might need time to think and ask questions.
3. Focus on strengths and differences
One common way to broach the topic is to first talk about the similarities and differences between your child’s family members, and friends. This introduces the idea that everyone has strengths and differences, and their differences do not make them less of a good person. When discussing your child’s strengths and weaknesses, you can mention that there is a name to this particular combination of strengths and weaknesses – autism. Besides focusing on negative differences, also remind them that there are certain skills and activities that seem easy for them, but are harder for other people. Highlighting your child’s strengths will let them know that autism is not bad, nor does it make them more flawed than others.
4. Keep the conversation going
Let your child know that they are welcome to talk about autism and their struggles anytime. Your child needs time to digest the new information about themselves at their own pace. Thus, it may take weeks or months before your child asks more questions. As your child’s understanding develops and they encounter new situations, new problems will also arise. You can check in with them once in a while to see how they are coping. This will help them feel more comfortable initiating questions and concerns about their diagnosis. Additionally, you can look for incidental opportunities to bring up autism. For instance, you can share a video you watched about people with autism and have a simple discussion with your child. There are also a variety of books for children with autism that help explain life with autism. These include titles like Different Like Me: My Book of Autism Heroes and the Max and Barnaby series of books.
It may seem like a daunting task to open this topic with your child, since you will not know how they will react to knowledge of their diagnosis, and whether you will be able to answer all the questions that they may have. Remember that you are not alone in this journey with your child. You can reach out to other parents with special needs children, and various special needs professionals for support and guidance. Your child will also benefit from interacting more with other children and families living with autism!
Written by Hazel.
12 Autistic Adults Answer - How To Tell Your Child About Their Autism Diagnosis [including scripts] (2022, Feb 12). Spectroomz. https://www.spectroomz.com/blog/how-to-tell-your-child-about-their-autism-diagnosis
Dundon, R. (2017). Talking with Your Child about Their Autism Diagnosis: A Guide for Parents. Jessica Kingsley Publishers.