When we tell a parent that their child is autistic their thoughts quickly turn to how they should tell their child they have autism. Understandably, it is something every parent wants to get right, so that their child can begin to understand and embrace their identity as someone who is autistic, with all the glory and challenges that that can bring.
In the following blog post we want to go through what we feel are some practical and thoughtful steps to consider prior to informing your child about their diagnosis. It is based on the following Webinar “Talking to Children About Autism” by Dr Melanie Heyworth from ‘Reframing Autism’. Dr Heyworth provides a step-by-step guide on how to introduce and normalise differences, and help autistic young people embrace who they are. Dr Melanie Heyworth is an autistic mother of three autistic young people.
You can find her full hour-long video here:
Dr Melanie Heyworth recommends, and we wholeheartedly agree, that the following steps are considered when telling your child about their diagnosis of autism:
Why tell your child?
Firstly, you need to understand why it could be helpful to tell your child they are autistic. Dr Melanie Heyworth suggests that with knowledge, especially self-knowledge comes power; that understanding yourself leads to feelings of wellbeing, gives a child resilience and self-determination. Autism is fundamental to a person, you are born autistic, it therefore follows that your child needs to understand all that autism brings to them. This knowledge is essential in building a child’s sense of identity and self-worth.
Step 1 – Normalise Differences
You need to celebrate that differences are normal, that we are all different and indeed being different is necessary for the success of the human species. The world is, as Dr Heyworth says “greater, richer, better for diversity” and you need to draw your child’s attention to this.
Start by noticing, commenting on, and accepting the physical differences in everyone. Begin with your family, talk about more overt differences; size, shape, colour of hair, eyes etc. Then start to comment on the more subtle physical differences e.g. eyebrow shape, length of toes. Comment on the good parts, and not so attractive bits, and explain that these combine to make us individuals and different from one another.
Step 2 – Normalise Brain Differences
You want now to explain to your child that our brains are as different as our bodies. Our brain differences determine lots of things such as how active we are, what hobbies we like, how we play, the way we react to situations, how we communicate etc. Again, relate this to your family members for instance that mum enjoys gardening because she likes the feeling of being active and being creative when deciding how the garden should look, that their brother is great at technology because he has a good attention to detail and can think logically and your cousin loves dancing because they have a good sense of rhythm and coordination. Always reiterating that differences are normal, and entirely necessary.
Step 3 – Explore Strengths
It is important that your child knows what their strengths are. Start by talking about your own particular strengths, how they give you joy and pride, but also make the links that your strengths are also related to your differences.
Move on to identifying your child’s strengths. Many of these may be very obvious and easy to identify. Other strengths might be harder to appreciate; a strategy to recognise strengths can be achieved by looking at what a child enjoys, this often reveals their gifts; so for instance if your child has a love of history, that may indicate they have a thirst for knowledge, they are curious about people, and if they can recall facts have a great memory. It can also be helpful to reframe the language you use for instance if your child is considered hyperactive you could say they have a zest for life, if they are in their own world you could describe them as being creative, if they are impetuous reframe this as adventurous.
Step 4 – Explore and acknowledge challenges
Explain to your child that every single person also has challenges. Identify your own, perhaps comparing them to your child’s strengths e.g. you can’t operate technology, but your child can. Discuss what you do to support the challenges you experience e.g. if you are struggling with your pc you ask your tech-savvy child to help. Highlight to your child that even as an adult you have difficulties, that you too are fallible and must seek help and support sometimes.
Step 5 – Put it all together
Now is the time to talk about your child’s autistic identity. At a time when everyone is calm and in a receptive state, explain in language that is accessible to your child that there are other people who share a similar pattern of strengths and differences as they do, that your child is part of a group of people who are autistic. Discuss the differences that autism brings and relate this to your child’s pattern of strengths and needs.
Acknowledge they are different but reinforce that so is every other person on the earth. By normalising and celebrating differences the hope is that your child will be more accepting of their pattern of differences and embrace their identity as an autistic child or young person.
Do watch Dr Melanie Heyworth’s webinar for a much fuller explanation of the above process. She is a passionate, knowledgeable and articulate speaker who, during her talk not only elaborates on the above steps, she also signposts families to resources you might find helpful.
In addition to the above webinar, there are also some great videos for children and young people on Youtube which provide positive and accessible explanations on what autism is for when you are at Step 5 in the process.
Firstly, there is a delightful 4-minute cartoon on You-tube called ‘Amazing Things Happen’ by Alexander Amelines which explores the differences we all have but also what specific differences autistic people have. Although aimed at younger children it is beautifully made and a very clear introduction to autism.
Another video option is from autistic founder of Spectrum Gaming, Andy Smith, who presents a Q&A session for young people around 13 years upwards, on YouTube all about autism. It is framed in a positive and accessible way and at an hour long is a great introduction to what autism is and what it means for him and the young people he knows. Spectrum Gaming is a community we often signpost families to (particularly if their child is a fan of a video game or two):
And if an hour is a little too long for your young person here is a brief 60 second summary also from Spectrum Gaming:
We hope this post is of some use to you if you are thinking about telling your child about autism. We are Cornwall Autism, providing private autism assessments for children and young people from 6 years upwards down in the South West of England.