It can be daunting trying to find the right words to talk to your child about autism. Fortunately, the last 10 years has seen a seismic shift in what we know about it and the support on offer. But if your child has recently been diagnosed, it can still feel tricky knowing how to help them adjust. Here’s our top tips on how to approach this sensitive issue in a way that helps both you and your child on your journey beyond diagnosis.
Decide on the right time
When it comes to discussing an autism diagnosis, the right time is different for every child. It’s generally a good idea to begin the conversation earlier rather than later, as children are often aware from a young age of how they are different from other children. Younger children are also less likely to hold preconceptions about what autism is, and whether it’s ‘bad’ or ‘good’.
Delaying the conversation may stir complicated feelings in your child if they find out from someone else that they have an autism diagnosis, particularly if they’ve been struggling with feelings of being different. If your child has indicated that they worry that something is ‘wrong’ with them, it may be time to have the conversation, as their diagnosis can help provide some reassurance and a healthy context for their worries.
Set up a positive conversation, but allow for negative emotions
From the outset, try to keep discussions with your child positive and relaxed. When they go for their assessment for autism, rather than using words like ‘assessment’ or ‘diagnosis’, which might sound scary to them, try explaining their appointment as a chance to understand more about how their brain works. Let them know that the purpose of getting a diagnosis is to help everyone understand what the best way is to support them with their challenges.
Your child may be ready to embrace their diagnosis, and may feel positive and proud about it from the get go. However, children can experience a range of emotions in response to a diagnosis, including negative feelings you may wish to protect them from. They may say they just want to be the same as everyone else, no matter how much you promote the message that being unique is beautiful. Be ready to acknowledge their feelings, whatever they may be, and allow them time to come to terms with their diagnosis, if this is what they need.
If your child’s initial response is negative, keep in mind that some of this may come from fear of being treated differently, or people finding out and responding unkindly. Be reassured that their perspective may change over time, particularly if they are able to enjoy positive experiences of acceptance from others.
Talk in terms of differences and strengths
When you open up a conversation about autism, a helpful starting point is to talk about differences: all of our brains are wired in a unique way, which means we all have different strengths and find different things challenging. You can say that their brain works in a slightly different way to a typical brain, and that this is something called autism. Let them know that an autistic brain processes things a bit differently, and then offer examples of their own strengths and challenges, to explain how their autism seems to affect them. For example, “That’s why sounds that are very quiet to other people sound very loud to you,” or “that’s why you’re so good at noticing patterns and changes that other people overlook.”
Be ready for your child's questions and responses
It’s healthy for your child to have a whole host of questions about autism. Embrace this curiosity so that autism is something that can be spoken about every day, as part of normal family life. There will be times when your child asks you something about their diagnosis that you’re not really sure about. Tell them honestly if you don’t know, and suggest you can find out together.
Let them know there's a community and support out there
It can be reassuring for children to know that there are many other autistic people out there. Look out for opportunities to connect with groups in your local community who organise social events for autistic children. Your child may also find it helpful to read books written from the perspective of an autistic person. You can look together for fiction or non-fiction books and find the ones that appeal to them. Look out, too, for examples of autistic role models who have succeeded and excelled, particularly anyone who has given a personal account of their experiences.Explain that autism is not the same for everyone
Introduce the idea that autism looks different for each person early on in your conversations, with something like, “There are lots of children who have strengths and face challenges like you, but there are also autistic children who are quite different to you.” They may be comforted to know that there are people out there who experience the world in a similar way to them. Equally, it may help to know that there are many well-known behaviours associated with autism that may not apply to them, such as avoiding eye contact or lining up toys.
Help them find the right words
When you feel your child is ready, talk to them about how they might explain their traits to someone else. Encourage them to think about what would be helpful for other people to know about their autism characteristics, and what they would like to keep private. These conversations will encourage them to speak openly, without a sense of stigma, as well as helping them establish what their own personal boundaries are when it comes to discussing personal information.
Acknowledge how you feel about it
It’s important to allow yourself time to reflect on how you feel about your child’s diagnosis. Some parents feel a sense of relief, while others experience frustration, particularly if the journey towards diagnosis has been very lengthy. You may also feel sadness and a sense of loss, if the diagnosis was greatly at odds with your hopes and expectations. Try to be kind to yourself and let go of any guilt you may feel over your emotional response.
Acknowledging your own feelings will help you navigate conversations with your child. There may be times your child has questions that you feel emotionally unprepared for. Let them know that their question is important and that you will answer it, but that you need a bit of time to think about it first. Most importantly, if you feel that news of your child’s diagnosis has had a significant impact on your mental health or your relationship with your child, consider speaking to your doctor and finding some support to help you through it.
If you're wondering if counselling could be the answer for your child, please get in touch with us and we'd be happy to talk it through.