(Inside: It can be hard to know how to explain autism to neurotypical kids, but it’s so important that we teach our kids about autism early! So I’m sharing all my best tips!)
“Why do I have to eat my veggies when he gets to just eat crackers and chicken nuggets?”
“Whyyyyy is he always screaming?!”
“Why won’t he just answer me??”
Sounds like a typical family get-together, right?
You head on over, whether it’s a birthday party, family dinner, or even Christmas, and you just hope for the best.
It’s really hard when your autistic child is around their neurotypical cousins who just don’t understand autism.
As far as they’re concerned, the autistic cousin just gets to break all the rules and gets whatever they want.
But don’t stress! I’m going to tell you how to explain autism to neurotypical kids (even super young kids!) in a way that helps them actually understand what’s going on.
(Image description: Two boys sit on the ground outside holding a soccer ball. Teal and Coral text on a white background at the bottom reads: “How can you explain autism to neurotypical kids”. White Autistic Mama Infinity Logo in the top right corner.)
How to Explain Autism to Neurotypical Kids
This was how it was in our family for every birthday party, every Christmas, and every family dinner.
Tensions were high between the cousins… In particular with my son A-Man and my nephew.
Thankfully, things have gotten SO much better, and it all started with me sitting down and explaining autism to my neurotypical nephew so that he actually understood.
See, when there was a blow-up, there were plenty of impatient “he has autism, he doesn’t understand” explanations, but that doesn’t really help a child see what’s going on.
When Should You Talk About Autism to Neurotypical Kids?
But before I dive into how I explain autism to neurotypical kids, let’s talk about when it should happen. Surely you want to wait until the child is old enough to fully comprehend, right?
Well – kind of.
See, when we wait until this magical time that our kids will be able to understand disability, we’re doing two things:
- We’re underestimating our children’s ability to understand the world around them and
- We’re making it harder to start the actual conversation about disability.
To point one, kids can understand disability at any age. Want some proof? Children are born disabled. They grow up understanding they’re different and that’s okay.
If disabled kids can understand that, so can typical kids. I pinky promise.
On point two… By not explaining disabilities to your kids, you’re allowing them to grow up with whatever ideas they have.
That the autistic child who screams sometimes is “bad”.
That the child in a wheelchair is “too lazy to walk”.
That the child who speaks differently is “stupid”.
Now let me be clear… You are not telling them these things. But you’re also not giving them anything else to believe.
When your child points at a man in a wheelchair and you say “Don’t point! Don’t stare!” and hurriedly move away to save yourself the embarrassment (trust me, been there!) you are unintentionally showing your children that disability is something that shouldn’t be talked about because it’s weird or bad.
So, when should you talk to your children about disabilities? From the moment you talk to your kids about the world.
If you have taught your child what the mailman does, teach them about disabilities.
If your child is old enough to listen to a book, they’re old enough to learn about disabilities.
If your child can identify a disability, your child can definitely learn about disabilities.
Now I know that was kind of broad, talking about all disabilities, but it works with autism too. Chances are your child will have an autistic classmate at some point.
Talk to your neurotypical kids about autism early!
How to Explain What Autism is to Neurotypical Kids
Okay, so we’re all on the same page that we should explain autism to neurotypical kids ASAP. But how do you actually do that?
Most adults don’t really understand autism… How can we explain it so that a toddler, preschooler, or little kid can understand?
#1: Start as basic as possible
Autism means that their brain works differently than other kids.
Autism doesn’t mean they’re bad, it just means that some things are harder for them than they are for you.
Autistic people might behave differently than you’d expect.
#2 Give them a comparison
You know how you are great at math, but not so great at reading, and your friend Katie is great at reading, but not so great at math?
That’s how autism works. Autistic people might struggle more with things like loud noises or following directions, but they’re really great at other things like noticing patterns or making jokes!
Now, you’ll have to edit these to fit the specific kids you’re talking about, but it’s a good starting point!
#3 Let them ask questions
This conversation will go one of two ways typically. Either your neurotypical child will be like “oh, okay” and move on with their day, OR they’ll have roughly 247 questions.
If they have questions, encourage it. I know it’s hard, but it will help.
If you don’t have all the answers, don’t stress! You can say “Oh I’m not sure. Let’s try to figure that out!”
You do not have to be an autism expert or disability advocate to answer your child’s questions about autism and disabilities. I believe in you!
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25 Awesome Things About Autism (With a Free Printable!)