Imagine this scene: you’re walking with your child, hand-in-hand, when you hear a loud noise or wailing. Instantly you both turn toward the sound to find a child with autism screaming or raging, struggling with sensory overload or trapped in a situation where they cannot cope. Their parent or caregiver tries to calm them down before things escalate past the point of no return. You turn your head and encourage your child to do so because “it’s not nice to stare.” And you move on, because you can.
But should you?
As a parent of a child on the autism spectrum, life can be lonely, isolating, and hard. Part of this isolation is natural because of the autism struggle, and part is because you walked away and said nothing. How can we break this silence and be part of Autism Awareness Month? Take the challenge to engage in autism awareness by talking about it with your children, your family, and your friends. When we talk about something, as uncomfortable as it may feel, we acknowledge it and bring it into the light, making it less uncomfortable. Most importantly, talking about autism gives our children, the next generation, the opportunity to develop empathy and compassion.
But, what should you say?
Here are 5 Tips for Teaching Your Child about Autism
- Explain what autism is, and what it isn’t. When we don’t talk about something, our children naturally assume it must be bad. Open, honest communication sets the scene for understanding and acceptance. Explain that autism is a disorder of the brain that changes how a person perceives the world. Discuss that people on the autism spectrum are all very different from one another, and react differently. One great analogy is to explain to your child that having autism is like taking a video game meant for one system and trying to use it in a different system. Everything would look and work differently. Read books about those with autism or with characters who are on the spectrum to help visualize and understand what the disorder is and looks like in the real world.
- Focus on similarities, not differences. We are all people. We all have emotions and responses to situations. When talking about autism, focus on similarities and abilities, not differences and disabilities. Variety is the spice of life, right? Make a concerted effort during Autism Awareness Month to celebrate similarities and differences in our world, and to talk about the benefits of those who are different from us. Most importantly, focus on what we have in common. Impress upon little ones the importance of including everyone, even if they are different from you.
- Engage with those on the autism spectrum. If we want to break down barriers, we need to understand one another. There’s no better way to understand than to engage and experience. Seek out opportunities to engage with those who have Autism and find out how you can support their caregivers. Want a first-hand experience? Play Auti-Sim, a game designed to put you in the shoes of someone on the spectrum as you try to navigate a basic social experience, a playground. Volunteer, visit, walk, etc. Just get out and do something!
- Encourage and teach helping behaviors. People with autism are often very capable, verbal, and enjoyable human beings! However, they may require an extra dose of compassion and patience. Teach your child the importance of empathy, of putting yourself in someone’s shoes so that you have compassion for them and better understand their experiences. Encourage your family to come along side of those on the spectrum and work towards inclusion. Learn about sensory issues and triggers in order to positively interact with someone on the spectrum. Teach your children the power of literal language and how to speak respectfully with someone (not screaming or like a baby!) who engages the world differently.
- Educate, then advocate. Once you’ve talked about autism and better understand it, why not get involved in helping break down barriers and change misconceptions about autism? Help raise money for autism research and awareness by participating in an awareness-themed walk or 5k. Encourage your local cinema or events arena to hold “sensory friendly” experiences for those on the spectrum. It doesn’t take much to advocate for those with autism, and it can make all the difference in their lives!
It’s Autism Awareness Month and you may wonder just what you can or should do in the face of this month and this disorder. Talk, don’t walk away, and use these five tips as a way to get you started. Have more ideas? Let us know in a comment below!