Photo Credit Robo Wonderkind, Unsplash
If you've just been diagnosed or self-identified as Autistic, here are some tips for having a conversation with your non-Autistic children to help them understand.
Take an age appropriate approach to explaining Autism. Start by asking them what they already know about Autism. This can be an opportunity to gauge how much information you need to give them. It's also a great opportunity to correct any misunderstandings about Autism before disclosing. Here's what a basic explanation of Autism looks like for a 5-year-old:
You already know that people's bodies are all different. Well, it's also true that people have different types of brains too. "Autism" is a name for a way that some people think and feel that is different than most people. Autistic people are all unique but they all have differences in the ways they think, interact with other people and how they feel. Autism is a natural brain difference that people are born with.
Here's a basic explanation for a 10-year-old:
Do you have any Autistic kids in your class? Tell me about that. Yes. Autistic people are a bit different than others. Autism is what we call the way some people are different. Autistic people have differences in the way they think, how they experience their senses, how they communicate with other people, and in how they stay calm. It's a difference that people are born with.
Here's a basic explanation for a 15-year-old:
I know your friend Andre is Autistic. What do you know about Autism? Yes, some people with Autism are very smart and still struggle with things like communication and emotional regulation. Autism is a neurodevelopmental condition, which means that when the brain develops during pregnancy, it naturally develops differently in Autistic people. Autistic people change as they grow up like all people do. Autism is defined by differences in communication, social behaviors, and repetitive actions and thoughts.
Explain that you felt different growing up
Transition from explaining Autism to sharing how you have understood your own differences. Did you fit in, stand out, or try to blend into the background? Talk about how your interactions with other children made you realize there was something happening for them that wasn't happening in the same way for you. Talk about specialized interests and/or stimming behaviors. Talk about how your unique thinking and sensory differences manifested.
Talk about how as an adult, you're still different
Explain how your sensory differences, interactions with people, stimming, specialized interests, thinking differences, etc are still present in your life and how they are different from others. Give them examples that they have probably noticed for themselves such as sensitivity to sound, a passion for stuffed animals, social anxiety or other traits you experience and display. It can also be helpful to share ones that might not be so visible like rehearsing social interactions, internal echolalia, or struggling with inertia.
"I am Autistic"
Your older children will likely see where you are going, but say it out loud and clearly: I am Autistic. You will want to explain to them that those differences you discussed in yourself make you Autistic. If you have worked with a professional to make this determination, let them know that, but self-identification is valid. The official diagnostic process is out of reach for many people.
Explain your feelings about being Autistic such as explaining to them you feel relieved to understand yourself and want them to understand you too.
Explain what this changes
The answer might be "nothing changes!" It may also mean that you are making some changes to accommodate your needs. Let them know what to expect.
Your child will also naturally want to know if they are also Autistic. If the assumption has been that they are not up till this point--explore that. They may relate to your experience and want to discuss that. If they have had struggles with communication, making or keeping friends, understanding emotions, sensory differences, sleep issues or related topics, you may wish to talk to their pediatrician for a screening to be certain your neurotypical child, in fact, is.