Guiding the Conversation: Talking to Your Child About an Autism Diagnosis
Discussing an autism diagnosis with your child is a significant step on your family's journey. It's a conversation that requires thoughtful planning, sensitivity, and an understanding of your child's perception of the world.
Understanding the Timing and Importance of the Conversation
Determining the right time to tell your child about their autism diagnosis depends on various factors, including their age, maturity level, and the presence of questions or concerns about their differences. It's essential to have this conversation when your child is ready and able to understand and process the information.
Discussing an autism diagnosis with your child in an age-appropriate, open, and sensitive manner can help foster self-understanding and self-advocacy. It can also help your child make sense of their experiences, understand why they might feel different, and recognize that their unique qualities are not deficiencies, but simply part of who they are that should be honored and celebrated.
Preparation is Key
Before having the conversation, it's important to educate yourself thoroughly about autism and its wide range of manifestations so that you are prepared to answer questions honestly and simply. A qualified healthcare professional can help you to plan your conversation with your child, and ensure that your discussion is structured in an open, age-appropriate way that uses empowering language and invites continued conversations about the topic.
Initiating the Conversation
Start the conversation by initiating it in a positive and affirming way that emphasizes your child’s strengths. For younger children, you might say, "You know how you're really good at remembering facts about dinosaurs? That's because your brain works in a special way."
Explain that everyone's brain works differently and that's why people are good at different things and struggle with others. Then introduce the term “autism” to describe how their brain works.
Addressing their Feelings and Concerns
Give your child the opportunity to express their feelings and ask any questions they might have. Some children may feel relief at finally having an explanation for their differences, while others may initially feel upset or confused. Your child may need time to process this information, and that's perfectly okay. Reassure your child that it's okay to have a mix of emotions and that you're there to support them.
Children's innate curiosity may lead them to ask a range of questions about their autism diagnosis. Here are some common questions your child might pose and suggested ways to respond:
"Does this mean I'm not normal?"
Reassure your child that everyone is unique and special in their own ways. Explain that autism means their brain works differently, which can bring both challenges and special abilities. Let them know that there isn’t one single “right” or “normal” way of being.
"Why do I have autism?"
Explain that autism is something people are born with and that scientists believe it's related to a combination of genes and possibly other factors. It's important to assure your child that autism is not anyone's fault.
"Can it be cured?"
Frame autism not as an illness, but as a part of who they are. While it can present some challenges, it also makes them unique individuals. Let them know that there are strategies and supports available to help them with the things they find challenging.
"Will I always have autism?"
Affirm that while autism is a lifelong condition, it doesn't limit their potential to learn, grow, and achieve remarkable things. Everyone faces challenges in life, and you will navigate theirs together.
Discussing Autism Openly and Positively
It's important to maintain a positive and open discussion about autism, emphasizing the unique strengths and abilities it often brings, such as attention to detail, the ability to focus on specific interests, and seeing the world from a unique perspective.
At the same time, don’t shy away from discussions about the challenges that autism can bring. Explain that certain things may be more difficult for them because of their autism, but that's okay, because there are people, strategies, and resources that can help them along the way.
This conversation is not a one-time event, but merely the beginning of an ongoing dialogue about autism. Your child's understanding of their diagnosis will evolve over time, and they will likely have more questions as they grow and their experiences change.
Navigating this journey with your child can be challenging, but it's also an opportunity to affirm their self-worth, promote understanding, and empower them to advocate for themselves.
1. Howlin, P., & Moore, A. (1997). Diagnosis in autism: A survey of over 1200 patients in the UK. Autism, 1(2), 135-162. doi: 10.1177/1362361397012003
2. Huerta, M., & Lord, C. (2012). Diagnostic evaluation of autism spectrum disorders. Pediatric Clinics, 59(1), 103-111, xi. doi: 10.1016/j.pcl.2011.10.018