It takes a lot of classroom time to become a psychotherapist, but one of my greatest teachers along the way was actually a young boy diagnosed with autism. He challenged his parents, had difficulty maintaining friendships, and was impatient in the classroom — but he taught me more about meeting the child where he is than any text book or lecture ever could.
What this little boy needed was to feel understood. He had very specific interests, and that became tiresome for his friends. They didn’t want to talk about science fiction during lunch every day. They wanted to play different games during recess. They didn’t understand his need to discuss one topic at length. He didn’t understand it, either.
His parents hesitated to discuss his diagnosis with him for a variety of reasons, but primarily because they didn’t know how to explain it to him in a way that would make sense to him. For many months, we spent our family sessions talking about how all people are different and all people have strengths and challenges. Through frequent conversations, he began to understand how his brain worked and how he could learn best. In the end, he was visibly relieved to learn about his diagnosis.
Explaining autism to a child isn’t a one-time conversation. It takes time and frequent discussions to help him process the information and make sense of the diagnosis. For parents, it can be a difficult conversation to start. What are the right words to use? How old should a child be when you start the conversation? Answer: as early as possible. But, you know your child best, so go with your gut. Short, frequent chats using age-appropriate language will help your child make sense of his world and begin to understand how his brain works.
Try these tips to get started:
1. Offer a simple explanation. Start by explaining the sensory connection to help your child understand that the symptoms of autism are what can make the world feel uncomfortable for her to live in. You might want to say, “Autism is a disorder that can make it hard for kids to cope with the world around them. Loud sounds can sound even louder to a child with autism. Sometimes clothes feel like they hurt because of tags or stitching. Kids with autism sometimes have one interest or object they really like to think and talk about.”
2. Play the brain game. Download and print two copies of a blank brain. Talk to your child about how all brains are different and all people have different interests, different likes and dislikes, and different worries and different feelings. Then, have him fill in all of the things that he likes and dislikes, all of the feelings he has on a given day (and what causes those feelings), what he likes to do with friends, what he likes to do alone, what makes him the happiest, what makes him feel sad, and so on. Fill in the answers that apply to you on the other printout. Once you’re both finished, compare notes. Talk about how you’re similar, as well as different. Share your likes and dislikes and talk about other family members and friends and how they might feel about the same things. Helping your child understand that we’re all different, with or without a disability, helps him understand that we all need to think about how others feel and how others function in the world.
3. Make sense of repetitive behaviors. Children with autism might struggle to verbalize their feelings, so they engage in repetitive behaviors like jumping, spinning, and running when they’re angry or upset. These behaviors might make her feel calmer, but she might not understand that. Help your child understand that she might feel the urge to engage in these behaviors when she’s feeling upset or overwhelmed. When kids can make the connections between feelings and actions, they feel more in control of those big emotions. She might continue to engage in repetitive behaviors because it feels good and helps her calm down, but she’ll understand why she does it and can begin to process feelings in a different way.
4. Talk about strengths. Sometimes parents hesitate to discuss a diagnosis with a child because they don’t want him to feel like the disability or diagnosis defines him. It’s important to talk about strengths. I learned more about science fiction and how movies are made from that little boy than I ever would have on my own, because I took an interest in his interests. He went on to create amazing works of art based on his love of science fiction. Drawing helped him cope with stress.
All kids have strengths. Talk about and celebrate those strengths. Help your child channel her interests into something that she loves to do each day, be it drawing or playing dress up. Teach your child to understand and embrace how her brain works so that she can find the outlets that truly make her happy.