Julie Green: The Other Side of the Coin


How and When: Talking to Kids about Autism and Difference

Keep it simple and age-appropriate

It's one thing deciding to tell strangers your child has autism (or another 'invisible' special need), but when is the right time to tell your child?

One school of thinking strongly objects to having the A-talk with your child. Why single them out and set them apart? Because it's only a matter of time. Our kids aren't stupid. We can try to pull the wool over their eyes as much as we like, but nothing escapes them. And as with sex-ed, by the time you sit them down, ready for the big reveal, your child can probably already teach you a thing or two about sex! 

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So I say get there first, before kids start whispering, "What's wrong with him?" and especially before, "He's weird." Though there is no perfect time, the right time is as soon as your child gets wind they are different. 

In my son's case, that happened from the first day of junior kindergarten. (I never would have guessed that four and five year-olds were so astute and intuitive, yet even the slightest difference sticks out like the proverbial sore thumb.)

Thankfully I was volunteering in my son's class a lot then, so I was privy to some of the exchanges in the cubby area. Kids would even come up to me, tug my sleeve, and ask why my son wouldn't answer or look at them. They were confused and sometimes hurt. 

The talk had to happen, not just for my son's sake, but for the sake of his classmates, too. Education and awareness needs to start young, and it has to start with everyone—not just the child with the difference.

I kept it simple and age-appropriate, focusing on the fact that we're all good at different things and we are equally not-so-good at other things. If we were all the same, how boring that would be, yada yada... Any machinery-type analogy works well when describing brains that are wired differently, be it Mac vs Windows or Xbox vs Nintendo or even (why not?) Coke vs Pepsi, depending on the audience.

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My son seemed happy enough to know about his difference. And the take home was simply this: autism doesn't make you less, nor does it make you more.

I like to think I'm arming him with confidence and self-belief before, inevitably, someone calls him out for being "weird." I won't always be there by the cubbies to explain autism with a nifty diagram (or to give my son an impromptu pep talk). 

Hopefully one day, when it counts, he'll be ready and rise to the occasion himself. 

In the meantime, if your child is young like mine, this episode of Arthur may help set the stage for that talk.