If you are the parent of a child with autism, you may be dreading “The Talk.” And no, I’m not referring to “The Talk” that explains where babies come from (though you may also be dreading that one, too!). I’m referring to “The Talk” in which you sit your child down and explain to them that they have autism.
Needless to say, it’s a very delicate subject that needs to be handled with great care. You may be feeling a lot of pressure to get it just right.
Take a deep breath; yes, it is going to take work and care, but it’s going to be just fine.
Read on for some tips on navigating these waters. Keep in mind, however, that every child with autism is different, and what works for one may not work for all. Always keep your individual, unique child in mind when explaining the diagnosis to them.
Should I even tell them about their diagnosis?
Short answer: yes; we highly recommend it.
Long answer: your child needs to know about their diagnosis because they are the ones who will be directly affected by it and live with it. Just like you would explain the various changes of adolescence to a pre-pubescent child, it’s important to explain the unique challenges and advantages of being on the autism spectrum. They need to know why they are a little different from other people, and that those differences have no bearing on their worth. They need to know they are not bad and that their struggles are not their fault. Additionally, if your child receives therapy or additional help and realizes other kids don’t, they may worry: Is there something wrong with me? Am I dying? Am I stupid?
While telling your child about their diagnosis can actually help stave off problems, you may still have your own worries holding you back from sharing it. Will they think less of themselves? Will they understand? Will they think autism defines them? Will they become sad or angry because they have this diagnosis? Will they use it as an excuse for not doing things? These concerns are legitimate, but they’re not reasons to withhold such vital information from your child. If they do become reality, the issues can be dealt with as they come. This one conversation is not the end all, be all. You can have more of them anytime in the future.
Of course, we at The Autism Site also understand and respect that everyone is different. If you have a very good reason to avoid sharing the diagnosis—one that does not begin with “What if?” and is something that could not possibly be addressed in future discussions—then do as you wish.
9. Plan what you’re going to say ahead of time.
Because this is such a delicate conversation, treat it with utmost care by planning what you’re going to say ahead of time. Write it out for yourself, if that will help.
Be sure to plan this out sooner rather than later, too. The last thing you want is to be caught off guard if your child brings the subject up!
8. Explain the positives and negatives behind autism.
Your child needs to know that autism is the reason behind some of their challenges. But they also need to know that autism is not all bad, and that it can give them certain advantages. So be sure to share both sides, starting with the positive. While you obviously need to explain the challenges, the overall tone of your explanation should be very positive. Explain that they may struggle with some things because they have autism, not because something is inherently wrong with them.
Also, since autism is such a broad spectrum that affects everyone differently, be sure to tailor your explanations to your child’s specific experiences.
Check out more tips on the next page!
7. Before you even share the diagnosis, be intentional about praising differences and human diversity.
Your child may be more likely to accept their diagnosis if they already know ahead of time that being different isn’t necessarily bad. So be intentional about discussing and praising the differences in your own family as early as possible, before you even bring up autism. For example, one family member may be good at reading, another at math; one might have blue eyes, another green eyes; one may be interested in sports, another in painting. You get my drift.
6. Look for signs that they are ready to know about their diagnosis.
If your child starts asking questions that can be answered with the knowledge of their diagnosis, they’re probably ready to know the truth. For example: “What’s wrong with me?” or “Why am I so different from everyone else?”
Of course, your child may think these questions but might not ask them. In that case, when should you share the diagnosis? Every child is different, of course, but social worker Marci Wheeler suggests it’s important to break the news before lots of negative, autism-related experiences start happening, as well as before they hear it from somebody else or overhear/see information about autism and start wondering.
5. Share during a moment when your child is relaxed.
If you are the one to initiate the conversation, be careful about timing. Choose a time when stress levels are relatively low and your child doesn’t have much going on in terms of school, activities, or other events.
4. Affirm your unconditional love and support for them.
You know that you love your child dearly, and that no diagnosis, event, or anything else will ever change that. End your initial explanation by reminding them of this, affirming how proud of them you are, and letting them know that you are always, always, always there for them to help them through the struggles—and celebrate the triumphs—of life with ASD.
3. Be sure not to info-dump.
Like I said before: this doesn’t need to be the one, single conversation about autism. There are plenty of future opportunities to explain it further. So consider keeping the explanation relatively short to avoid overloading them with information, and then open the floor to your child and let them ask questions, if needed.
2. Consider using outside sources.
Explaining your child’s diagnosis doesn’t have to be completely on you. There are books and other resources out there that can help you explain it to them. A few great books you might consider using are
- Autism Is…? by Ymje Wildeman-van der Laan
- Can I Tell You About Autism? by Jude Welton
- Autistic Planet by Jennifer Elder
Another option is to bring your child to the professional who first diagnosed them and have them help you explain it. That makes them—rather than you—the bearers of delicate, potentially difficult information; which leaves you and your family to be the ones your child sees as their support system—not the deliverers of the difficult news.
1. Support them as needed while they process the information.
Your child may quickly accept their diagnosis or even find relief in it. If so, that’s great! Your child may also struggle with the new information or go through their own sort of grieving process. That’s okay, too. Everyone is different and reacts differently to such news. If your child is one who has a harder time accepting the diagnosis, give them appropriate support—extra love, extra space, extra time to talk or ask questions, or whatever will best help your child through this time.