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How to Talk to Your Child About Autism: Helping Typical Children Understand

Updated on October 5, 2017
DMChristiansen profile image

Activist, speaker and author of several books including Planet A: a Mother's Memoir of Autism Spectrum Disorder.

ASD children need a friend to understand what makes them different.
ASD children need a friend to understand what makes them different.

Different Not Less

When my son was diagnosed with autism in second grade, I quickly made it my mission to help those around us understand him. Though I had friends who were open to receiving information, more often than not, I would ultimately hit a wall. My life was full of IEPs and therapy and the quest for more and more information. Autism consumed me and when others didn’t seem to care, I found myself frustrated and feeling alone. That’s how many parents of ASD kids feel and it’s unfortunate. As the years went by, I came to realize that not everyone would care about the things that were important to me. Not everyone would want to know about autism, and that’s okay to a point. After all, how much do I really know about other neurological differences? Still, I spent fifteen years, at the very least, trying to educate my son’s friends. And those close to him got it. But as my son entered high school, there was a whole new batch of misinformed students surrounding him, and it led to some bullying. I reached out to the school’s Facebook page, asking all parents to please educate their children about autism. The response I got was the same: I would, but I don’t know what to say. Here are the top four things that parents can teach their typical children about autism spectrum.

Autism in a Nutshell: The diagnosis of autism is achieved through meeting four basic requirements. These are: communication impairment, problems with social issues, repetitive behaviors, and restricted interests. Children with autism spectrum have difficulty communicating on a social level. This means that they may only talk about themselves or their interests. It’s difficult for them to change subjects, or recognize facial expressions to know if a peer is frustrated with them. They may laugh at things that aren’t funny or make jokes at serious times. It is hard for them to understand the social game at all and, when they try, it makes them anxious. ASD children may also have repetitive behavior such as repeating the same phrase over and over again or needing to line up objects.

Black and White: Many children on the spectrum think in black and white. What this means is that if someone is lying, more than likely, an ASD child will call them out. They see very little gray in life. My son becomes very upset at things that he sees as unjust. This can be on topics from friends who he thinks are being deceptive to a peer receiving special privileges in the classroom. Because of this type of thinking, compromise is difficult and losing a game is even harder. For an ASD child there is no pleasure in the gray. They cannot always see how happy a friend might be to win at something if it means they lost. Black and white thinking does not leave much space for empathy.

Why My Son is Rolling Around on the Floor: The brain of an ASD child works differently. When my son became embarrassed in social settings, he would drop to the floor and begin to roll around. He just didn’t know how to express how he felt and that was his outlet. Many children on the spectrum might have other nonconventional ways to express what they are feeling. They are not trying to scare other children or even trying to get attention. They simply can’t control how they are feeling in that moment and need an outlet. Believe me, the last thing that most spectrum kids are trying to do is to get attention. They get plenty of that every day just going to the store. My son’s brain does not give him the cues he needs to assimilate like typical kids.

How to be a Good Friend: The best way for a typical child to be a friend to a child on the spectrum is to, well, just be a friend. Don’t judge and try to help others understand what some of the behaviors might mean. I always love it when my son’s friends help him model appropriate behaviors like gently changing topics or helping him understand how others are feeling in the moment. Help your child to understand that each of us has our own unique differences and that, without those, the world would be a boring place. Also, point out the positives of all friendships. My son may be difficult to understand but he has a great sense of humor and can teach a friend a joke or two.

As my son gets older, I realize the importance of inclusions. As parents, we should encourage our children to be kind to everyone, teaching them not to judge but to appreciate all peers for what they contribute to the group. Also teach empathy and the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. I don’t expect everyone to climb onboard my train, but I do expect them to at least meet me at the station.


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Diagnostic Criteria DSM-5
Diagnostic Criteria DSM-5
Diagnostic Criteria DSM-5


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