Parents of children diagnosed with an Autism Spectrum Disorder often fret about when to tell their child they have an Autism Spectrum Disorder and how.
What if you didn't have to tell your child he or she has Autism?
Wouldn't it be nice if you lived in a world where your child could just 'be' - no disclosure necessary, no labels?
Ah, yes, it would but that might be a bit unrealistic.
But what if I told you there was an easy way to tell your child?
What if I told you that you can create a positive experience for telling your child he or she has Autism?
Do you think this is possible? I say yes and here is why.
Let's face it we are all different. We all relate to the world uniquely and teaching that to our children is the most important thing any parent can begin to do at an early age. When a parent can matter-of-factly point out the similarities and differences among themselves as a family and beyond then being different becomes less of an issue. Honoring and celebrating each of our differences in a valued fashion rather then waiting for it to be pointed out and discussed when it becomes obvious gives any label less emphasis and is more likely to be seen as a positive.
So how does one put a positive spin on telling their child they are on the Autism spectrum? By developing mindsets and environments that not only expect differences but value and respect them as well.
Allow me to paint a picture of how this might occur.
- Be proactive. Begin early on to establish an environment that discusses similarities and differences in a positive light. Identify each person's learning style, temperament, personality, sensory issues and idiosyncrasies and focus on the positive aspects of them. As attention is paid to the benefits of each it is only natural for human beings to gravitate and create more of the same thus minimizing the negative. Don't wait for Autism to become noticeable to your child or others. Doing so risks negatively altering your child's perception of self. Avoid this by developing a positive and authentic self-image of who she is early on, one that does not have to be changed or explained later on.
- Acquire a vocabulary without labels. Be mindful to use language that emphasizes strengths in relation to challenges. When someone does something well, name it as an asset and celebrate it. Point to the fact that everyone is good at something that might be a bit more difficult for someone else in the family or elsewhere to accomplish. This will encourage non-judgmental comparison and can even promote a mentoring atmosphere, where individuals use their strengths to help other family members who are challenged in that same area. The ability to objectively see the strengths each family member, relative, friend and others have normalizes the fact that we are ALL good at something. The trick is to do this uniformly and acknowledge the strengths of everyone in the family, including us adults.
- Balance every challenge with a strength. Discuss ways to use your strengths to compensate for your challenges. Occasionally sit down with everyone and discuss how each of you utilize your strengths to make accommodations for the things that you may struggle with. For example, sitting in class listening to the teacher doesn't work well because you are not an auditory learner. You struggle to take notes because your penmanship is poor. So you augment your note-taking with your talent for art. Over the years you have developed a type of artistic shorthand that you use to take unique notes adding pictures and symbols. This appeals to your visual learning style and helps you remember the lesson better.
- Normalize everyone's challenges. If your child's differences came in the form of diabetes, epilepsy, poor eyesight or food allergies would you wait to address it? No, you would describe it as "this is the way your body works and this is what it needs to function at it's best." Why are we so much more sensitive and touchy when it comes to something that affects the mind? Why can't we be just as matter-of-fact about the way a child's brain or nervous system works? Explaining to a child, "This is how your nervous system works" or "This is how your brain is wired" helps to paint a realistic picture of how their body functions. This is powerful information for children to have in order to self advocate, keep themselves safe and in control of what they need to maximize their potential.
Describing Autism without using the word Autism can definitely be accomplished but only to a point. Following the recommendations above can delay or may even prevent the asking of the awkward question most parents fear, "What is wrong with me?" or "Why am I different?" Unfortunately the day may still come when your child wants to have a name for his differences whether he sees them as positive or negative.
Should the time come when your child really wants to know what her brain style is called then you need to let her know the label society gives it. But if you began early in her life to lay the affirmative groundwork discussed above then the label is apt to be just another piece of factual information rather than a devastating blow to your child's sense of self. Always remember that the most important message will be in the descriptors you use rather than the label itself.
Connie Hammer, MSW, parent educator, consultant and coach, guides parents of young children recently diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder to uncover abilities and change possibilities. Visit her website http://www.parentcoachingforautism.com to get your FREE resources - a parenting e-course, Parenting a Child with Autism - 3 Secrets to Thrive and a weekly parenting tip newsletter, The Spectrum.