Whether your child has high-functioning autism or requires one-on-one help from a classroom aide, there will come a time when her peers recognize she’s different, and with 1 in 68 American children being diagnosed with autism each year (source), we need to do a better job of explaining autism in a positive, non-threatening way so our children are accepted despite their differences.
But before we can do that, it’s essential that parents find acceptance from within first. As scary, intense, ambiguous, frustrating, and exhausting as autism can be, finding a way to accept a child on the autism spectrum for who they are, rather than focusing on who they may never become, can be extremely freeing. And while it’s completely normal to go through a period of denial after an autism diagnosis, parents must find a way to accept the cards they were dealt with, fight for the needs of their children, accept the help that is offered, and raise awareness so their child can excel.
So, how do we do it? How do we remove the stigma around autism and show the world what children on the autism spectrum are made of? How do we explain the pain they feel on a daily basis in the face of sensory processing challenges and gastrointestinal issues? How do we explain why they may be on their best behavior at school, but meltdown the moment they walk through the front door every afternoon?
The answer is quite simple.
But since most schools and teachers are ill-equipped when it comes to explaining autism to children, the onus is often on parents, caregivers, and therapists to intervene and push harder for autism education and acceptance within the classroom.
Here are 8 tips to help you explain your child’s autism to her peers.
Start the conversation. The first step towards raising autism awareness is to talk about it. Reach out to your child’s school and ask what their protocol is when it comes to explaining autism to children within the classroom, and offer to help. Organize an information session for your child’s class so you can discuss her individual needs, or seek out other autism parents in your child’s school and brainstorm ideas that will allow you to educate the students, teachers, and administrative staff about autism and how they can help.
Define it. Explaining autism in simple terms children can understand isn’t easy, but there are heaps of resources you can turn to online to help pull together age-appropriate information for your child’s classmates. For example, if your child struggles with sensory processing challenges, SheKnows has a fabulous autism definition for children that helps explain what this might feel like:
‘Try using a simple explanation like this: Autism is a disorder that makes it hard for a person to deal with the world around them. A sound like the school bell ringing, which may not bother most kids, may sound like nails on a chalkboard to a child with autism. A tag in a T-shirt might feel like a terribly itchy sweater. The sunlight outside might feel like a flashlight has been just shined into their eyes. Autism is like walking around with your nails cut too short and your shoes on the wrong feet. Every. Single. Day.’
Of course, this only scratches the surface of autism, and doesn’t really explain the social and emotional challenges children on the spectrum face. Kids Health takes it a step further by explaining all areas of autism in simple terms, which you can read HERE.
Focus on your child’s abilities. Whichever way you choose to define and explain autism to your child’s peers, make sure to focus on her abilities rather than her deficits. Find something she has in common with the other kids to help them relate to her better and give them suggestions on how they can include your child throughout the school day – games she enjoys, topics she likes to discuss, etc.
Encourage questions. Children are curious by nature and they will probably have a lot of questions about autism, but they may not feel comfortable asking you everything that is on their mind for fear of being rude or looking silly. A great way to encourage open and honest communication is to ask everyone to write a question down on a piece of paper and leave it in a cardboard box so you can do an anonymous Q&A session.
Encourage empathy. While you don’t want the world to feel sorry for your child, older kids do have the capacity to empathize with others, and if they are encouraged to imagine what it would be like to walk in your child’s shoes, it may make them stop and think before excluding or teasing her.
Create an autism fact sheet for kids. If you find your child’s school is lacking adequate resources when it comes to explaining autism to children, don’t be afraid to provide the literature yourself. Print off some informational sheets that outline the important stuff (‘What is Autism?’, ‘What Causes Autism?’, ‘How Can I Help My Friend with Autism?’), and take it a step further by including specific things about your child. What are her strengths? What are her interests? What does she struggle with? If your child is verbal, encourage her to put together a list of things she wishes her classmates knew about her but that she has trouble expressing. It may seem small, but it can go a long way in ensuring your child’s peers have access to the right information so they can better understand her.
Stock your child’s classroom and school library with books about autism. There are tons of great books that explain autism to people of all ages. The trick is to find a selection that is age-appropriate for the audience you are trying to educate. Here are some selections we love:
- A Friend Like Simon – Autism / ASD: A wonderful book that works as an introduction to ASD children. It is an especially great picture book to read to a class who may have a new ASD child being introduced.
- We’re Amazing 1,2,3! A Story About Friendship and Autism: Part of Sesame Street’s autism initiative, this book allows Elmo to introduce his ASD friend Julia to Abby, explaining brilliantly how Julia does things a little differently.
- The Autism Acceptance Book: Being a Friend to Someone With Autism: This is a great book to teach autism to neurotypical children. It works as a conversation starter and a reminder to be compassionate, allowing children to imagine how ASD kids might feel.
- I See Things Differently: A First Look at Autism: A story book geared toward teaching kids about autism and helping them understand it better.
- What About Me?: A Book By and For An Autism Sibling: This book was written by a 7-year old boy who explains the struggles and joys of being an ASD sibling.
Organize autism awareness activities. One of the best ways to teach children is through play, and there are lots of fun autism activities you can organize throughout the year in your community and at your child’s school to help raise autism awareness, including:
- Walk for autism. Most large cities around the world organize local fundraisers via walks, runs, etc. each year, and asking other parents and children to participate in an event like this with you is a fabulous way to connect and raise awareness. Ask the administrative staff at your child’s school for their assistance in organizing a team, and don’t be afraid to get team shirts printed and hand out fun props to make it fun and engaging!
- School fundraiser. Schools are always hosting bake sales and other events throughout the year to raise funds for various reasons. Consider organizing something similar as a way to educate families about autism, and donate the proceeds to a local autism-related charity.
- Classroom buddy system. Work with the administrative staff to organize a system whereby older kids volunteer to help with children who are on the autism spectrum. This might involve eating lunch with them, keeping an eye out for them on the playground to ensure they aren’t bullied, or helping them with their classwork. It’s a great way to get other children involved and teach them how to be compassionate to those with special needs while simultaneously helping your child feel included and secure.
- Autism simulators. While autism is extremely difficult to define and describe, visual representations can help others understand how everyday experiences can feel overwhelming to someone on the autism spectrum. YouTube is filled with all kinds of autism simulation videos you can share with your child’s peers in an effort to help them appreciate your child’s world, and why she reacts to certain stimuli the way she does. Here are a few examples:
Coach Elaine Hall once said, ‘It takes a village to raise a child. It takes a child with autism to raise the consciousness of the village’, and while not all of your child’s classmates will show her the support and acceptance you so desperately want for her, it’s up to you to try.
You must educate and advocate and never give up.
I hope these tips and tricks help you when it comes to explaining autism to children!
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