Parents often have conflicting feelings about sharing a new autism diagnosis with their child. While you are still processing your own thoughts and emotions about the new diagnosis, it can be hard to know how and when to share it with your child. On the one hand, you may feel that your child has a right to know. On the other hand, you may be concerned that your child won’t be able to understand, or is still too young, or will feel like something is wrong with them. By preparing ahead of time, you can help your child build a good foundation for understanding the diagnosis.
You will be better able to support your child when you first learn more about autism yourself and begin processing your own thoughts and feelings about the new diagnosis. If you’re focused on questions like “What do we do now?” or “Where can I find more information and support?” you are likely not yet ready to talk supportively with your child. It’s all right to spend some time finding your own way on the autism learning curve before launching your child on their own learning curve. By preparing ahead of time, you will be better able to answer your child’s questions accurately, avoid inadvertently perpetuating harmful stereotypes, and be emotionally available as your child begins to make meaning of being autistic.
Teaching About Diversity
You can help prepare your child for learning that they have autism by first teaching them about the diversity that they can already relate to, such as the tremendous variation that is everywhere in the natural world. How incredible that a monkey can use its tail to swing from trees, but a dog can use its tail to express happiness! How beautiful a garden is with so many different flowers in it! How wonderful that trees need both sunny days and rainy days to grow! In addition, the world is full of people who are similar to and different from each other. Some people are tall and some people are short. Some people like broccoli and some people hate it. Some people use their finger tips to read books in Braille, while others use their eyes to read books in print. Some people use their legs to get around, while others use a wheelchair. If your child is able to understand concepts like these, it is likely that they will be able to understand at least some concepts related to autism. And, when autistic children know more about diversity in general, they are better able to see their diagnosis as another way that they are similar to or different from others.
Teaching About Neurodiversity
You can also teach your children about different kinds of neurodiversity: variations in the way that human brains are “wired”. For example, kids and adults around the world can be neurotypical or can have Dyspraxia, Dyslexia, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Dyscalculia, Autistic Spectrum Disorder, and more. Maybe your child already knows they have one of these diagnoses or maybe they have a friend, teacher, or family member who does. And while this neurodiversity can come with minor to major challenges, it can also come with strengths. For example, a child or adult with ADHD who struggles with impulsiveness might also come to value the joy of their own spontaneity. An autistic child or adult might have an exceptional memory or heightened ability to focus on things that interest them, both of which can be put to good use in developing expertise in a particular area.
Every single person has strengths and weaknesses—whether they have a diagnosis of autism or not. So you can routinely talk about your own talents and challenges, how you accept yourself in all your complexity, and how you’ve risen to challenges in your own life. You can also find role models—in the family, community, or a particular field—who have experienced a challenge, embraced their unique way of being in the world, and lived a meaningful life. Again, if your child can understand concepts like these, it is likely that they will be able to understand at least some concepts related to autism.
If your child can read, books can help them (as well as family members and friends) better understand autism and other forms of neurodiversity. With or without an autism diagnosis, children generally benefit from learning about the neurodiversity that is all around them right now and that will be all around them in the future—from the classroom to the workplace and beyond. Your local library may have books about autism in its collection, and a variety of book lists are available on the Internet, such as the ones here, here, and here. But, whether you borrow or buy, always read a book before sharing it with your child. You know better than anyone else which books are most likely to meet their needs. Some books are written for young children, while others are written for teenagers and young adults. And some books are written by neurotypical parents or professionals who have experience parenting or working with autistic children, while others are written by autistic individuals who know firsthand what autism is really like.
By sharing books about autism and other forms of neurodiversity, you can set the stage for your child to start understanding autism from a positive place, instead of based on stereotypes and misinformation. And as an autistic child reads about autism, they may start to recognize characteristics in themselves that prompt them to start asking questions that can be the starting point for sharing their diagnosis.
How to Find Out More
For more information about sharing an autism diagnosis with your child or to discuss how our team can evaluate or provide services for your child, please don’t hesitate to book an initial consultation. Sharing an Autism Diagnosis with Your Child, Part Two: The Conversation is a Journey will offer ideas for how to talk with your child about their diagnosis, once you have done the kinds of preparation described in this post. Stay tuned for that blog post!
Cynthia Good, MS, LMHCA, CATSM, IBCLC
Therapist and Parent Coordinator