When it comes to understanding autism, the conversation isn’t always easy. As parents, we want to celebrate differences and promote inclusion. So how do you teach your neurotypical children to embrace autism? Today, I have autistic mother, advocate and author Kaylene George sharing her tips on understanding autism.
The first time I met Spencer was after school. I was surprised to see my daughter, who is very intent on only being friends with girls in her class, talking to a boy I’d never seen before.
She bounded up to me with her friend at her side, beaming with her hands cupped.
Her eyes sparkled “Guess what I have?”
Without so much as a pause, she answered: “A grasshopper! Did you know Spencer knows everything about grasshoppers? It’s all he talks about.”
The next day, Spencer came up to me. “I’m looking for grasshoppers,” he announced abruptly. My daughter found him and both kids set off in search of insects.
As we walked home, cupping her newfound jumping friend, my daughter began talking.
“Spencer is the smartest kid in the world when he talks about grasshoppers. He’s my friend, but sometimes he acts weird.”
“What do you mean?” I wanted to understand more.
I already suspected Spencer was autistic.
Not only did he have a special interest in grasshoppers, his speech had a unique nuance, he didn’t make eye contact easily, and wasn’t one for small talk.
“Well, when Mrs. Bernard asks us to do things he doesn’t want to do, Spencer screams and sometimes throws toys.”
“Ah. That can’t be easy to see. What sorts of things doesn’t he like?” I asked.
“Well, when it rained a few days ago he screamed that he didn’t need his jacket. And when gym class was cancelled for a concert he didn’t like that either. Sometimes, Mrs. Dion works with him. Actually, she’s with him a lot. I think he’s her special helper.”
I appreciated her perspective and marvelled at how much a five-year-old was able to pick up on having an autistic child in her class.
This was my first opportunity to explain that certain kids have brains that work differently than ours. I wanted to help her with understanding autism.
Since then, my kids have befriended a couple of other kids in their school that aren’t neurotypical and the questions have continued. Feeling out of my league, I reached out to my friend Kaylene, an autistic mom of five (including one autistic child) to improve our understanding of autism.
Understanding Autism: 5 Simple Strategies to Help Neurotypical Kids
In order to improve your child’s understanding of autism, it’s important to make age-appropriate adjustments to these tips.
Take this as a guide, and use what fits your family’s situation best!
Here are Kaylene’s tips for understanding autism.
#1 Understanding Autism Begins With Explaining What Autism Is
Until children know what autism is, they’ll likely define autistic children as “weird.”
So the very first step to help neurotypical kids embrace autism is to explain to them what autism is.
Which, I quickly realized, is a lot harder than it seems.
I mean, it’s a neurological disorder… I’ve already lost my kids’ attention with that one.
So how can you explain what autism is at a level that kids actually understand?
“Everyone’s brain and bodies work differently. Autistic people have brains that see the world differently, and sometimes they act differently than we’d expect them too.”
With that baseline, you can add whatever details make sense for your situation.
Some ideas to get you started are:
- Autistic people might not understand why other people think and feel the way you and your friends do.
- When autistic people hear sounds louder or see lights as brighter than neurotypical people do so they might get overwhelmed easily.
- Sometimes when autistic people get excited it takes over their whole body, so they flap, spin or move a lot to get that excitement out.
- When autistic people struggle to talk, they might quote the same movie line over and over and over again.
- Sometimes, autistic people don’t talk at all, but they can still make some pretty loud noises. You did that before you could talk too!
You can also add some encouragement that just because autistic people do things differently, doesn’t mean they don’t want to be your friend! They just might show their friendship in a different way than your other friends.
#2 Talk About Different Needs and What’s Really “Fair”
One of the first questions that come up with neurotypical children understanding autism is why the autistic child gets to use toys at school while the other kids don’t.
Or maybe why the autistic child gets extra help with homework, or they don’t get in trouble when they talk out of turn or shout.
This can be a hard concept to grasp for kids…
Why do they get special treatment? It just isn’t fair, right?
In cases like this, I use the example of glasses.
Your child probably has a friend or family member who wears glasses… So I talk about how so and so uses her glasses because she needs them to see.
But, no one else gets to use glasses, do they? Of course not, because they can see without them.
For autistic children, it’s the same thing. They do get to use fidgets in class sometimes while other kids don’t.
But that’s because the autistic child needs that fidget, just like your other friend needs her glasses.
Sometimes fair doesn’t mean the same… Sometimes fair means that everyone gets what they need to be the best they can be.
#3 Explain What Meltdowns Are and How They Can Respond
So, after the “it’s not fair” comment… The next thing most kids bring up are the meltdowns.
Maybe the autistic child in your child’s class has aggressive meltdowns. Or maybe he screams and cries when he doesn’t get his way.
It can be difficult for neurotypical kids to understand why their autistic friend “acts like a baby” sometimes.
This is where you’ll want to explain what a meltdown is. They’re different from just throwing fits and they aren’t in the autistic person’s control.
Relate it to a time when your child was exhausted or overwhelmed, and then one more thing happened that just set them off.
That is what happens to autistic kids.
So even if the small thing like someone bumping into them or the teacher taking their paper seemed to set them off, really it’s just the last thing that’s made them lose control.
Teach your child to have a plan for when their autistic friend has a meltdown. Make sure they know that even though the meltdown isn’t their friend’s fault, everyone still needs to stay safe.
And include reconnecting in the plan. Have a plan for your child to reconnect with their autistic friend so that they don’t end their interaction on a bad note.
Practice this plan together so that your child feels confident that when their autistic friend has a meltdown they’ll know what to do.
#4 Create an Inclusive Environment
Historically, autistic children were kept away from neurotypical children.
Now, it’s simple to create an inclusive environment where both autistic and neurotypical children’s needs are met. And, that can start with you.
Maybe you can invite the autistic child over for a playdate, or to your child’s birthday party.
You might be surprised to know that the invite you extend may be the only one the child receives all year.
But there is more to creating a truly inclusive environment than just inviting…
Take a few simple steps to make sure everyone feels safe, included, and welcome.
- Ask ahead of time: If you aren’t sure what you can do to help the autistic child you’re inviting, ask them or their parents. For instance, ask about any food preferences, sensory struggles, or their favorite things.
- Prepare for sensory needs: If you’re planning a birthday party or a large playdate, consider different people’s sensory needs. Will it be loud? Bright? Crowded? Consider finding an area away from the chaos that autistic children can use when they start to feel overwhelmed.
- Prepare your kids in advance: Make sure that you’ve talked with your kids about autism and why their autistic friend does what they do. Have a talk before the party reminding them about certain autistic behaviors (like flapping, spinning, quoting movie lines, making strange noises) and give them strategies for how to respond and what to do when they get overwhelmed or annoyed with the behaviors.
#5 Learn More About the Autism Community Yourself
It can be difficult to help neurotypical kids embrace autism when we don’t know a lot about autism ourselves… And it isn’t our fault. We weren’t taught about different disabilities growing up.
But one in 59 children is autistic. And, one in six children has a developmental disability – this includes, but is not limited to language delays, physical disabilities, and ADHD.
So we have to start talking to our kids about inclusion now.
The only way to make that easier is to learn about these disabilities ourselves so that we can teach our children to the best of our abilities.
Disclaimer: This post contains affiliate links. If you choose to make a purchase outside of the free resource mentioned below, I could receive a commission.
That’s why I came out with the book Embracing Autism: the Keys to Understanding, Accepting, and Embracing Autism. It’s become many parents’ go-to guide to truly understand what it means to be autistic, and how to best support the autistic children in our lives.
Embracing Autism is not available until June 26th, however, you can sign up for my free autism workshop to help in understanding and embracing autism here.