Kids Don’t Understand Autism...Unless We Talk to Them About It

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When I was young, Kelly was the odd kid on our block.

I remember watching Kelly spin a small toy in her hand over and over.  Sometimes it was a rubber chicken, sometimes a small plastic army soldier.  Other times a He-Man figurine, or a tiny bottle for a baby doll- the kind where the “milk” inside seems to disappear as you tip it over, or a Barbie doll.

I remember talking to her and not understanding her strange words of reply…if she responded at all. And I didn’t know what to say back.

I remember she laughed loudly at things that no one else found funny.

I remember she didn’t run and play with the rest of us.  She preferred to sit on her front porch, spinning her toy in her hand.  Or maybe ride her bike by herself.

I wondered why she was different.  Her parents and brother seemed like regular people to me.  (With the one exception being that her brother one time ate an entire block of Philadelphia cream cheese for a SNACK, pulling down the silver wrapper slowly as he ate it, as if it was a burrito.)

As time wore on and I got older, I remember feeling a mix of compassion and pity for her.  I didn’t know any better, and no adult told me what was going on.

(*Although this is a true story, names have been changed to protect the privacy of my childhood neighbors.)


I believe this story is being repeated over and over in our society, even today.

We must talk with our children openly about what autism is.  No child without autism can understand a child with autism without an adult explaining it to them.  

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In the excellent book “Practical Social Skills for Autism Spectrum Disorders: Designing Child-Specific Interventions", Kathleen Koenig reviews research on what WORKS to help children with autism develop social skills for participation in daily life later on as adults.  A key finding in the research is that children with autism benefit from PEER MODELING of social skills.  But not just from any peer….from a TRAINED peer.  Research indicates children who are trained to understand the behaviors of children with autism are better at playing with children with autism. While honoring the uniqueness of each child, if we talk with our children openly about autism, they will be more likely to be allies and friends to children who have social learning differences.

Koenig’s book suggests very explicit, direct instruction for peer models in therapeutic intervention.  It made me wonder why it feels “wrong” to us as parents to talk openly about autism.  Like we are worried we will say something wrong, or offend someone.  But our silence is not helping anyone.  We must talk about it or our children will not KNOW about it.  As of 2014, 1 in 68 children in the United States are diagnosed with autism.  All kids need to understand autism as a way of being in the world, in order to be able to play with one another. 

If you have a child who does NOT have autism, here are some symptoms of autism you might discuss with your child (and in parentheses, what you can tell your child to do when it happens):  

  1. He may not look right at you when he talks to you. (Ask him to look at you.)
  2. He may talk about one subject a lot. (Ask him to talk about something else.)
  3. He may not respond when you say his name. (Go to where he can see you.  Say his name again and ask him to look at you.)
  4. He may shake his hands, spin a toy, spin in circles, make noises with his mouth, clap his hands, [insert any other behavior here], etc.  (Show him the toy you are playing with and ask him to join you.  Show him how to play with the toy- throw a ball, roll a car, put a puzzle piece in, etc.)
  5. He may walk away in the middle of a game. (Walk after him and ask him to come back to play.)
  6. He may get upset if the plan changes. (Ask what he wants to do instead.)

Do you see how explicit it is?  This instruction helps the child without autism understand exactly how to modify their own behavior to effectively interact and play with the child who has autism.  

So what about you?  Do you hesitate to talk to your child about autism for fear of saying the wrong thing?  If your child has autism, what has worked for your child to learn to play with peers?  If your child doesn't have autism, do they know how to play with children who do?  

Let’s break the silence and talk about it.  So our kids can PLAY.

Laura Figueroa