Seven things you need to understand about your autistic child

Written by an #actuallyautistic person who was an autistic child (but that was in the 80s and 90s so no one realised, or if they did they didn’t mention)

1. Your autistic child understands more than you think.

Unless they are also deaf, your autistic child can hear you. They are listening even if they appear not to be. They can understand what you are saying. This includes very young children. How do you think humans learn language? It’s from listening first. Some autistic people don’t speak until very late, or at all, but that doesn’t mean they don’t understand. Autistic people often listen and take information in better when we do not have to make eye contact. Just because your child is looking away, doing something else like lining their toy collection up in size order, spinning around on the floor, staring at something or reading a book does not mean they aren’t listening – in fact they might be listening very intently. Especially if you are talking about them.

I believe this is true for neurotypical children too but having not been one I can’t say from personal experience. Don’t talk about your children as if they are not there!

2. Your autistic child may be sociable in a different way.

Many autistic people find socialising very hard work. Your autistic child might be excited that a friend or family member is coming to visit but might interact with them differently to neurotypical children.

They might seem annoying – e.g by trying to join in adult conversations when you expect them to do something else – I’m not sure what else, I never quite worked that out…

The might seem like they are being rude – by not staying in the company of the visitor the whole time, by doing something else like reading or playing on a phone or game while the visitor is there. See point one above, they can still be listening and in fact that might be a more comfortable way for them to listen and be part of things.

They might seem disinterested – they might go off to do something else instead of directly interacting with the visitor. They might have reached their social capacity or they might actual be going to do something that is sociable such as going to draw a picture to give to the guest or make something to share with everyone. So they are being thoughtful and generous, not “anti-social”.

It is not helpful (understatement: it is damaging) to tell your autistic child that they are annoying, rude or anti-social – that is *your* perception, not their intention.

3. Your autistic child’s interests are very important. Encourage them.

(unless they are very dangerous, but even then they can probably be directed to something safer or learn to do the dangerous thing safely)

Yes, your child might well be fascinated by something very specific and unusual for a person of their age: level crossings, particular components of amplifiers, buses, trains…. as well as of course more conventional child interests like Lego, dolls, dinosaurs or Disney. This intense interest will be bringing your child immense pleasure. Why would you want to deprive them of that? Is it for your benefit or theirs? One day they might make a good living out of it and be able to keep you in your old age, and even if that doesn’t happen, so what? Isn’t it good to have something you passionately enjoy?

4. Tell your child that they are autistic

Chances are they know they are different (even if you don’t think they do) and if they don’t know yet then they will soon find out. Explain to your child as soon as you can that their brain works differently to the majority of the population and that is why they find some things easier than their peers but other things harder. For example that is why they love train timetables so much but find it hard to go to parties. There are lots of resources around to help you with this: books, youtube videos, #actuallyautistic adults… It won’t help your child for you to be in denial about it, they’ll pick up that you think it’s something to be ashamed of or hidden.

5. Don’t underestimate your child

Remember they can likely understand much of what you say even if they don’t appear to be listening, and this will have an effect on them. Even if they aren’t speaking when you think they should, they will probably learn later on. If they don’t ever speak they will most likely be able to communicate in other ways. Support them to do this. Many autistic children are hyperlexic – i.e. we basically teach ourselves to read. Development may appear delayed in some areas but may be ahead of the norm in others.

6. Don’t overestimate them either

Remember that they will struggle with things that come naturally to most people. Even though they might be excelling academically or seem very articulate they will likely be struggling with many things you probably take for granted: social and communication things; friendships; planning and prioritising and switching between tasks (look up executive functioning if you haven’t already); just navigating a world designed by and for non-autistic people. They might need support at school, especially secondary school, so do what you can to help them get the support they need whilst bearing in mind they may or may not know what they need and might find it hard to ask for help. Telling them they are “rude” or “lazy” won’t help anything: more likely it well chip away at their already fragile self-esteem

7. Remember they are autistic – don’t try to make them seem “more normal”

Autism is not something to be ashamed of. Autistic people are supposedly bad at dealing with change yet it is us that are expected to change our natural way of being to be more acceptable to the neurotypical world of non-autistic people who are supposedly very flexible of though. Just think about that for a moment.

Is it really that bad if your child fidgets, flaps their hands, rocks, doesn’t do eye contact so well, wears their hood up, uses headphones a lot, wears sunglasses inside, choses comfortable inelegant clothing or an easy to maintain haircut?

Accept and embrace your child’s differences. Don’t try to change them to make them appear more normal, instead work to change society to make it more accepting of difference.

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