When one in 68 U.S. children is diagnosed with autism, it stands to reason that your child will certainly encounter those who are on the spectrum. How can we help children not on the spectrum understand what autism is?
I taught children on the spectrum for several years, and while they blew my mind on a regular basis with fantabulous things, I also saw the tougher, harder side for families and students.
Most often, things were difficult because peers and classmates didn’t understand the differences their classmates with autism had. Heck, half the time, adults who were not trained to work with those on the spectrum didn’t understand. Sadly, I often saw that lack of understanding play out in some ugly ways.
How do we help our children compassionately understand autism?
To children, particularly young children, some of the behaviors autistic children display may seem different and pretending they aren’t different will just confuse children (and do a disservice to those on the spectrum).
Autism means brains work differently — that’s a fact.
We need to help our kids understand that although there is something different about their peer’s brains, there’s something different about all of our brains and that connection helps them see the child with autism as a true peer.
We can tell our children to imagine thinking they are supposed to be working on their math homework, but the paper just looks like spelling and they’re working really hard to make it feel like math. While that’s a basic analogy, it’s one that most elementary-aged and older students will understand to some degree.
Helping children focus on the ability of their peer(s) with autism will also help them see that the differences do not have to define them.
Children naturally focus on what they can do. From a young age, most children will start telling you what they can do: “I brush my teeth! I eat my dinner! I did it!” and helping children focus on what their autistic friends can do will help guide how they define their autistic friend. “My friend Joe can name all the Pokemon characters in alphabetical order,” means that their friend is known for his abilities, and when we help our kids recognize the ability in all, we help them understand everyone else better, including themselves.
One of the best ways to help children understand those on the autism spectrum is through reading.
Check out this list of really amazing books written to help kids understand their peers on the spectrum.