How to Tell Your Child He Has Autism

mom hugging sonReceiving the news that your child has been diagnosed with autism can be an overwhelming and life-changing moment for a mom. But just as you're processing the information, another important question arises: when do you tell your child that he or she has autism ... and how?


According to Eric Hollander, a clinical professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences and the director of the autism and obsessive compulsive spectrum program at the Montefiore Medical Center in New York City, the answer to when may be sooner rather than later, as kids are incredibly self-aware. "Parents have discomfort about the conversation, but kids need to have an understanding about their place in the world," he says. "And soon, they'll start questioning."

Hollander, who has worked with children with autism and their families for years, advocates for answering those questions -- rather than avoiding it because of your own discomfort . Although he admits the "you have autism talk," may be more challenging for families with children on the far low end of the spectrum, Hollander says sharing the news can still have a profound effect.

So how do you talk about an autism diagnosis with your child? Early and often, Hollander says. According to the expert, there are certain things you should do, but just as important, there are plenty of things you should not do.

Here are his tips for the talk:

How to explain autism to your child

  1. Don't spring it on them. When you first receive your child's diagnosis, limit the conversation to Mom and/or Dad and the professional. The first time you're hearing it should not be the child's first time too. Likely, you will need time to process, so give yourself a moment before starting a game plan.
  2. Start sprinkling the information into conversations early. Bring up the term autism, bring up their individual symptoms, and make it normal, everyday terminology in the family. Use it around your child, with your partner, and in conversation when applicable. That way, Hollander notes, when the actual conversation happens, it's not entirely foreign.
  3. Watch your child for cues. While there's no perfect age to have the conversation, Hollander advises against starting before they're able to specifically point to differences or instances that would be attributed to autism. "Once a child starts noticing differences, they can start to become more anxious," Hollander notes. "At this point, it's time to have the talk."

    More from The Stir: 35 Things Not to Say to the Mother of a Child With Autism

  4. Make it a family conversation. While having a medical professional, or your child's trusted doctor, might seem like a logical move, don't be afraid to make it a simple one-on-one conversation between Mom and child. Yes, Hollander (like many professionals) will have the talk with kids and parents, but by having it with your child, alone, beforehand, you ensure they feel comfortable and safe. You can always offer a follow-up conversation with their doctor to answer other questions.
  5. Don't say "I don't know." Kids fear unpredictability, Hollander says. You want to prepare yourself and make sure you can speak to several points of the diagnosis. Many children ask: "Does this mean that I'm crazy?", "Will I be able to have a family?", and "Will I have to take medicine for the rest of my life?" Depending on their diagnosis and level of functioning, Hollander recommends having definite answers for each. Speak with a doctor before you have the conversation if you fear that these questions will stump you.
  6. Start with the differences. "Talk about their strengths and weaknesses," Hollander recommends. "It's helpful to talk about issues, but put them in the context of what makes them different from their peer group." Explain that they may have a hard time doing X, or become frustrated because of Y. Putting the specific examples in your explanation will help them understand how the diagnosis is based.
  7. Use visuals. Especially for children who are non-verbal or on the lower-functioning end of the spectrum, it's important to have visuals. A book like My Autism Book: A Child's Guide to Their Autism Spectrum Diagnosis could help children not only engage with the news, but also process it in a way that makes sense to them. Your child's cognitive levels will determine what path to take. 
  8. Don't fear the stigma. "Autism" or "Asperger's syndrome" may have certain connotations, but don't let these steer you away from using the language. "Use these specifics," Hollander notes. "And talk about other people who may feel that way. Give them real-life examples that they can connect with., and thereby reduce the stigma."
  9. Don't make it formal. There's no need to have a sit-down talk, where everyone in the family is expected to show up at a specified time and place. That, Hollander says, will make the talk feel more rigid and potentially more stressful. The point you're trying to convey is that the news is not an entirely world-changing event, so don't make it official and detached.

    More from The Stir: Autism From A to Z: Everything a Mom Needs to Know

  10. Be ready for multiple talks. Chances are, you'll have the conversation, you'll answer their questions, and it'll end there. For now. Your child will likely process the information on their own eventually have more queries. So don't think that the conversation is a one-and-done deal. Instead, continue to have the talk as they become more accustomed to the news.

Have you had the talk with your children yet? Share your tips below! 


Images via shutterstock; ©

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