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When Children Have Questions about Classmates

As my 6-year-old was getting ready for his first day of school, he shared that he wants to grow up to be a fundraiser like mom and help people with autism. He loves everyone and that is one of the things I love most about him.

His comment prompted us to talk further about being a good friend to kids with autism and how that is something he can do right now. It was a great conversation. I started thinking about the many times I’ve been asked by moms of children without autism how to answer their kids’ questions about their friends. They typically ask, “What do I say when my child comes home with questions about why someone is acting differently in school?”

As the new school year starts, I hope the following tips will be helpful for you to share with other parents who may not have a child with autism and want to educate their child:

 

Listen and explain

First, listen to your child. What are your child’s concerns? Are they worried about how the other child is interacting with them or upset that the child is behaving unusually? Or are they just curious about the child or wishing they knew how to be friends with the child? Let your child have their say first, and try not to introduce any new concerns with questions.

Next, talk to your child about how we are all different. Ask them to list some things that they do well. Then ask them about things they might need extra help with. Ask them about their friends – can they name kids who are good at the things they themselves are not? Of course they can! We all have different strengths and weaknesses.

Ask your child how they feel when they have trouble with something. Do they feel frustrated, or angry, or embarrassed? Ask them how those feelings make them act. Explain that perhaps the child that they see acting differently might be experiencing these same feelings. Their behavior may be a reaction or a way to communicate. Everyone expresses themselves differently.

 

Teach about autism

If your child knows that the other child has autism, you can explain about autism specifically. If the class has not been told that the student has autism, you should be careful about labeling the child because they may not have autism or may not want it disclosed.

For younger children, keep it simple and let them know that some children are born with brains that are a little different. This means that those children might talk, learn, act, and feel differently from your child. Explain that the child might need more help or different instructions from the teacher to learn. Things might bother the child that your child doesn’t notice: certain noises, lighting, or scratchy clothes could upset them. They may not know how to communicate these feelings appropriately.

You also can look for educational resources in your local or school library, such as these books recommended by Autism Society of North Carolina staff:

The Autism Society of North Carolina website also has a section on autism awareness and acceptance where you will find educational videos and fact sheets geared for different age levels. For older children, you could share more technical definitions and the list of autism characteristics on ASNC’s website.

Our Autism Resource Specialists use this animated video on YouTube to help children understand autism.

 

Encourage empathy and friendship

Finally, encourage your child to be a good friend. Talk to them about using encouraging words and not teasing other children about their differences. Ask them what they have in common with the child and talk about building on that, rather than noticing differences.

For many children with autism, it is hard to make and keep friends. If your family has the opportunity to welcome a child with autism into your lives, it will undoubtedly change their lives forever. And yours will be enriched as well!

 

Kristy White, ASNC’s Chief Development Officer, can be reached at kwhite@autismsociety-nc.org.

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