World Autism Awareness Day takes place during April, and I wanted to take a moment to give some advice to parents who want to help their kids develop compassion and companionship with kids with Autism or other neurological differences.
Autism is a developmental disorder that impairs the ability to communicate and interact. It is what is known as a spectrum disorder, meaning that there are varying degrees to which people can be affected. Some people with Autism are highly functioning individuals who succeed in school and the career world, while others remain nonverbal and unable to complete basic tasks on their own. In fact, with the correct supports, many people with Autism can lead happy lives, but the key is getting those supports early and as needed.
I have noticed parents really want to teach their neurotypical children to embrace all kids equally, but sometimes, they just don’t know what to say. Specifically, when face to face with a child who is different, parents panic or freeze up. They don’t want to say the wrong thing, and they definitely don’t want their kid to say the wrong thing.
I am not the parent of a child with Autism, but I have worked directly with children who have Autism and other neurological differences. I have also worked with groups of children who are a mix of neurotypical and neurologically different. From my experiences, I have learned that the most important thing that children need to learn to give one another is acceptance and friendship. Interacting with children who are different is more important than what we say, or whether it’s the “wrong” thing to say.
So parents, when your child asks you why a child looks different or is acting in an unfamiliar way, try this.
“Not sure! Let’s smile and say hello.”
Alternatively, model openness and friendliness by saying hello and smiling when you’re not sure how to react to a situation. Our kids learn how to treat others by watching what we do.
If your child has a kid with Autism in her class or regularly interacts with a neurologically different child, encourage your child to learn more about Autism and teach her to always make an effort to interact.
It’s OK if you don’t know what to say, but I am asking you not to hurry past because you feel uncomfortable. Instead, try and embrace the idea that people are different and we all make up a beautiful community.
To learn more about Autism take a look at these resources:
- In Two Worlds, one of the only works of fiction ever written by a person with nonspeaking autism.
- Autism the Sequel, The Sequel revisits the stars of the Emmy-winning film Autism: The Musical, which followed five children as they wrote and performed their own musical 12 years later. The original subjects, now in their early 20s, navigate what independence means to them as they manage both challenges and triumphs as adults living on the autism spectrum.