- Autism, a condition caused by brain differences, may affect communication, behavior, and emotions.
- Talking about autism openly instead of avoiding the subject can promote empathy and bust myths.
- You can also opt for autism-affirming resources and emphasize everyone’s strengths and differences.
The most important advice to keep in mind when explaining autism to kids: It’s not a taboo topic.
“Autism should not be an unspoken, avoided, or ‘bad’ word,” says Chloe Rothschild, an autistic person and autism advocate on the Board of Directors for The Arc of the United States. Rothschild goes on to emphasize that conversations about autism should happen sooner rather than later.
Autism is a neurodevelopmental condition that can affect how people communicate, learn, and regulate emotions and behaviors. For instance, autistic people may:
Autism is a spectrum, and everyone on it has their own strengths and weaknesses, just like all people. But supporting an autistic person goes beyond having an awareness of this spectrum. Recognition and acceptance are essential for helping a neurotypical child understand and empathize with autistic people.
You can demonstrate recognition and acceptance by developing your understanding of autism and sharing what you learn with your child.
Here are five strategies to start the conversation with your kids in a respectful, non-stigmatizing way.
1. Emphasize the importance of conscious language
It’s important to use the right language when talking about autism to positively shape your kids’ interactions with autistic people.
For example, some people consider autism a part of their identity and prefer to call themselves an “autistic person” and not a “person with autism.”
However, everyone is different — so let your kid know it’s always fine to ask a person how they identify to avoid any offense or unconscious insult.
“If we don’t recognize, educate ourselves on, and ask a person’s preferred terminology, we gloss over their identity and sense of self,” says Melissa Danielsen, neurodivergent and disability care advocate and CEO of Joshin.
Though experts diagnose autism as a medical condition, an autism diagnosis isn’t the same as a diagnosis for something like COVID-19. If your child asks whether they might “get autism” too, you can explain it’s a difference in the brain, not a disease or illness.
In short, you can’t separate autism from someone’s life or identity — autism makes up a fundamental part of who they are, and conscious language is essential for respect.
Similarly, language like “high-functioning” or “low-functioning” can hurt some autistic people.
This language implies one person on the spectrum requires accommodations and another doesn’t, which minimizes many autistic people’s experiences.
What’s more, approval of these terms also vary from one autistic person to another. So, it’s best to avoid using these two terms and teach your child to avoid them, as well.
2. Consider their age
You’ll probably need to explain autism differently to a kindergartener than you would to a teen, and that’s OK.
“For a younger child or a child who needs more of a simple explanation, I would explain how everyone is different,” Rothschild says.
You might explain that autistic kids may have a harder time with things such as talking, making friends, playing with others, or remembering to stop and think before they act, Rothschild says.
For instance, you could start with, “You and your brother have different needs, just like you and I have different needs. Your brother is autistic, so he has a hard time with noises and textures like wool or metal that don’t seem icky to you.”
You can explain how your child can help. For example, you might tell her she can turn down the television volume if she notices her friend putting his hands over his ears.
High school explanation
It can help to explain autism as a difference in brain wiring, says Corrie Goldberg, a licensed clinical psychologist and neurodiversity-affirming therapist in private practice.
You might also emphasize to older kids and teens that these differences aren’t problems to be fixed, and they don’t make the brains of autistic people any “better” or “worse,” Goldberg says.
You can tell older kids that autism affects areas like:
- Sensory input, like taste, touch, smell, light, or texture
Certain triggers, like fluorescent lights, clothing tags, or vacuum cleaners might also prove overwhelming for autistic people. While your teen might consider these things no more than a mild annoyance, they can still tap into their empathy to understand how an autistic person might feel.
To help your explanation click with them, you might encourage them to think about a time when they felt overwhelmed – like getting so overwhelmed at a social event they needed to leave right away or trying to hold their breath in a stinky public bathroom.
3. Emphasize that everyone has strengths and differences
Autistic people thrive with the right accommodations — but they’ll struggle without enough support — just like anyone else, Danielsen says.
The autism spectrum includes a range of symptoms, strengths, and weaknesses, so parents should avoid explaining autism as a “one size fits all” experience, Danielson says.
“Autism is different from one person to another, and different perspectives and lived experiences with autism should be at the forefront of the conversation,” Danielson says.
Parents should avoid the “We should feel sorry for them” narrative for this reason. Instead, aim to swap this story for one based on diversity and inclusion.
For instance, you could point out:
- Your teen understands social norms but might feel embarrassed about pursuing “unpopular” interests, whereas autistic people may fully embrace their niche interests.
- While your child’s autistic friend doesn’t know when it’s their turn to talk, they know more interesting dinosaur facts than anyone else at school.
- Your teen might be great at knowing when to talk in class and still struggle talking to a girl they consider cute.
4. Clear up common misconceptions
In the past, many people defined autism by shortcomings or romanticized it as a gift — think the “people with autism are savants” stereotype.
These extremes can misrepresent autistic people and do a lot of harm — in part because media portrayals often capitalize on these stereotypes and spread misinformation about autistic people.
But you can use your conversations about autism as an opportunity to help dispel harmful myths.
Myth #1: Autistic people aren’t empathetic.
“Some television shows falsely portray autism as cold, emotionless, and blunt,” Danielsen says. But this oversimplifies autism.
Autistic people may feel the same emotions but show different facial expressions. They may also struggle to understand someone else’s perspective on a cognitive level, but still have plenty of emotional empathy.
Myth #2: All autistic kids are academically gifted.
Not all autistic kids get good grades or succeed in school. Many kids on the spectrum may struggle academically and have trouble paying attention.
Like other kids, autistic children who have trouble focusing are less likely to succeed in school, while attentive kids may perform better scholastically.
Myth #3: Autistic kids don’t want friends.
Friendship is important to many autistic people, but making friends can be hard when you don’t recognize social norms. This is why autistic people are more likely to befriend others who accept their social differences and share similar interests.
Myth #4: Autistic kids “grow out of” it.
Autism isn’t temporary, it’s part of a person’s DNA and neurobiology, Goldberg says.
Some autistic people — especially women — may disguise their differences to blend in, but downplaying signs of autism can delay diagnosis, which makes it harder for an autistic person to understand themselves and find accommodations.
5. Do some research first
It’s OK if you don’t have all the answers. Answering questions honestly, and admitting when you don’t know the answer, can inspire some research that helps you and your child develop your understanding.
Search for autistic-affirming books, movies, and websites for a more empathetic and accurate perception of autism. =
Your kids can get involved in learning, too, with:
You can also search content with the hashtag #ActuallyAutistic on social media to find more stories from autistic people.
How to explain autism to an autistic kid
A conversation about autism might include extra information if you’re explaining it to your autistic child. Reassure them that autism isn’t a bad thing, and that they’re not alone.
“If they ever have any questions about autism or would like to meet others who have autism, open the door for them to share that and help them make connections,” Rothschild says.
This conversation will take a different shape for every child, based on their age and needs.
To a child in elementary school, you might say:
- “You know how sometimes sounds feel really big and hurt your ears, even though they don’t bother your sister? Some of that is because you’re autistic, which means you guys have different strengths and weaknesses. We can help by getting you to a quiet place when big noises happen.”
- “You know Julia on Sesame Street, Elmo’s friend? Just like you two are artistic, you’re also autistic. What do you notice about Julia?”
To a child in middle school, you might say:
- “Everyone’s brains are wired a little differently, including yours and mine. We’re both on the autism spectrum, which means we can be more sensitive to certain things like textures and less sensitive to things like temperature sometimes.”
- “You and I are autistic, and our brains are kind of like computers sometimes. When we have too many windows open in our brain, or our brain computer starts to overheat because we have too much input, we have to turn it off for a minute. We can do that by going somewhere quiet where there’s less sensory input.”
To a high school teen, you might say:
- “You know how your friend called you self-centered the other day? You’re not self-centered, you just relate to people differently than he does. Some of those differences between you and Josh are because you’re autistic and he’s not. That can make it harder to know when to let him talk, or what questions to ask about his day, and that’s okay.”
- “You don’t have to change yourself. But it might help to know cues to pay attention to in conversations, so you know when someone wants you to jump in. You might want to take a slow breath when you think they’re finished. If they’re still quiet, it’s your turn. You can also ask, ‘Can I add something?’
- “You might have a harder time with certain situations like crowded dances or loud football games than some of your friends. Let’s brainstorm what we can do together to make sure you feel more comfortable, whether that means wearing earplugs to the next game or just swinging by for the second half.”
“Adjust it to meet your child where they are, and don’t overwhelm them with too much at once,” Rothschild says.
For instance, many children on the spectrum are nonverbal or have auditory processing challenges. These kids might learn about autism best in a visual format, like an infographic, rather than a conversation.
“Let kids ask questions and keep that option open after the first conversation as kids often need to talk about things a number of times to work through their understanding,” Goldberg says.
By including autistic voices in the narrative and educating yourself, you can explain autism in an affirming way to kids of any age.
Avoiding these conversations can keep them from learning, growing, accepting, and understanding autistic people, Rothschild says.
By being patient, kind, and clear, on the other hand, you can advocate for autistic loved ones while teaching your child to embrace the beauty in diversity.