How to Explain Autism to Typical Kids (and Lots of Others While You're At It)

Autism awareness and acceptance are good things. The more the average person knows about autism, the better it will be for the community — especially our autistic members. Yet, the average person can't easily define autism. Quite frankly, our experts in autism don't do such a great job of defining it either. It isn't a simple concept, because it isn't a simple state of being. Autistic people vary greatly in how they are impacted by their differences — from highly articulate individuals living full lives and advocating for themselves and others to severely disabled autistics unable to communicate in any way.

So, how, is the average parent/teacher/youth mentor supposed to help the typical kids in their care understand a condition that is so complex? How do we explain it to the unaffected kids who will inevitably encounter other children on the spectrum at school, church, and birthday parties? How do we help them to become not merely tolerant, but to welcome their spectrum peers and interact with them?

As a teacher and a parent of a young autistic child, I've been in both roles. I am now beginning to be asked questions by children and adults, curious about my son and his needs. I now have to learn how to explain important things about my child without having to deliver a dissertation. And I have been a teacher and seen the discomfort typical kids have around those who are different — as well as the devastating effects that social ostracism has on the kids who are different.

We need to do better.

Here are some guidelines and ideas to help typical kids better understand their peers on the autism spectrum as well as for autistic kids to find understanding for themselves.

1.Honest questions are not rude. I'll say that again. Honest questions are not rude. How else will children learn? Yes, little Johnny's flapping and grunting does seem odd to a typical four-year old. There is no need to shame a child for an innocent question. This is a great time to matter-of-factly explain that everybody doesn't have to be the same. It's okay to leave out the parts you know a young child is not yet developmentally able to comprehend. Our five-year old knows her brother is autistic and that that's okay. She knows he is different, and that he likes/doesn't like certain things. She knows we have to watch out for him just a little bit more and that we like him just as he is. Right now, that is good enough. She loves him and is learning to make accommodations for him in order for them to have fun together. It's a good start.

2.The Gaming System Analogy. This is an explanation tailor-made for elementary-aged kids. Autism parent blogger Four Sea Stars had a successful experience talking to her autistic son's 4th grade class. She asked them what would happen if they took a game meant for one game system and put it in another. That's all it took. Today's children understand operating systems. It led to lots of good questions from the class, and her son got an opportunity to share his unique experience with his friends who are now better able to understand him. (You might also want them to check out Auti-Sim, an online game that navigates a playground through the eyes of an autistic child with auditory hypersensitivity. This game is not perfect, but it's an interesting sensitivity exercise.)

3.Focus on ability. When discussing an autistic child, keep the conversation focused on what he or she can do. Perhaps he may not speak, but he loves playing in the sprinkler or dancing to music. Make suggestions for how to include everyone and solicit suggestions from the other kids. Be sure they know to speak directly to an autistic child, even if he/she is nonverbal. Autism is not an intellectual disability. A child may understand perfectly well without speaking and may have ways to communicate his wishes.
Include them in local autism events. Many cities have chapter of CARD or similar organisations. They often offer family days, fundraising fun days, etc. Better yet, help bring such events to your community and involve typical kids. Sports such as "Buddy Ball," in which typical kids join in the fun with special needs friends, can be a great day of fun. If you are a parent, ask movie theatres to offer "sensory friendly" movie show times. Ask whoever organises local Santa events to add a couple of hours on the end for special needs children and offer to help organise it. Talk to your local library about offering autism-friendly story times. Ask the fire and police departments to hold special hours during "Touch the Truck" events for children with sensory issues. You'd be surprised what your community is willing to do when asked.

5.Talk to your school district. Ask whether your district offers programs to educate children about differences. Consider talking to your child's class or faculty. This is often done in elementary, but not so much at the middle school level. And that's a shame, because middle school is where it is so badly needed.

6.Take autism out of the closet. Older children and middle schooler's are often cited for being cruel. Yet, after teaching 15 years of middle school, I can tell you that they are quite capable of empathy and altruism. The key to getting older kids to understand is to be open and honest. If you don't want to discuss something, then it must be really bad in their minds. Answer their questions. Remember that, developmentally, older kids still process the world through a self-filter. If they can be encouraged to imagine themselves in another person's shoes, you've got them in your corner. You also have the decided advantage of the middle schooler's sincere belief that all things should be possible. They will move mountains when they see it as necessary.

7.Remember the siblings. Alicia Arenas forever changed my perception of siblings of special needs kids in her TED Talk "Glass Children." Siblings need their feelings acknowledged and an opportunity to just be a kid rather than responsible for a sibling or their parents' emotions. Ask your child's guidance counsellor to put together a support group for siblings. If the school has enough siblings for such a group, then they just might have enough autistic kids for their own support group as well.

8.Educate your church. If you attend religious services, then you may view your church to be an extended part of your family. In that event, ask your faith leader if you could speak to them. Talk about autism. Talk to them about your child so that they can better understand him. A friend of mine is fortunate enough to attend a church whose members make their special needs kids an integral part of their church community. What a wonderful experience for all involved.

9.Read books about autism and autistic characters. There are wonderful books for all ages — both geared for typical as well as autistic kids. As a teacher and a school librarian, I cannot emphasise enough the power of a book to change hearts and minds. When else do we have the opportunity to experience the mind and life of another? Check out this list.

10.Encourage older kids and teens to reach out to the autism community. If you live in a metropolitan area, there are probably some existing groups. But, if not, there are many online forums, groups, pages, etc. that are moderated sources of support and information for both autistics and their friends and family.,,, and Born This Way Autism are a few. It's important to remember that autistic kids themselves need help understanding their differences. The opportunity to connect to kids and young adults like themselves could be both life affirming and changing. We all need people we feel we can talk to.

So, next April for Autism Awareness Month, why not do just that and spread some awareness? Not only will you be helping to make the world just a little bit more welcoming for those on the autism spectrum, you will help to grow the worlds of those not touched by autism. With a collective effort, we could actually help turn autism awareness into autism acceptance.

And wouldn't that be something for us all?

Information take from What To Expect website

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