Since receiving my son’s diagnosis, I have dreaded the moment when I must explain what it means to be autistic. Some have said I am fortunate because I have an intimate understanding of autism—having received my own diagnosis. While it was not presented to me softly, I plan to give my children a gentler introduction to their diagnoses. So, where do I start.
The best way to explain something is to understand it. Which means learning how our thinking and behaviors differs from neurotypicals’. This dilemma was elegantly demonstrated when someone asked me, “What is it like being autistic?” to which I answered, “What is it like not to be autistic?” Therein lies the issue. Autism is all I know. Since I cannot step outside of myself to discover my differences, how can I comprehend something that sets me apart but has no definable boundaries?
In my personal search for answers, I sought professionals in this area—teachers, counselors, doctors, etc—hoping for direction. Surprisingly, I was directed to children’s books as a media befitting my kids’ ages and level of understanding. Expanding my search, I discovered children’s shows aimed at educating young minds about autism. There are many fictional characters with autistic traits meant to represent neurodiversity. But these outlets tend to solely highlight the glaring difficulties typically faced by autistic individuals. They do little to explain any benefits or positive elements of autism.
There is no single right way to explain autism to your children. But, while determining a method of approach, I considered the many books and shows that circumstantially educate autistic children on their societal shortcomings. Knowing this, I decided to present autism in all its glory, expanding upon media’s portrayal by defining our differences, advantages, and the reasons for our challenges.
In order to represent autism in a positive light, I chose to explain to my sons—aged seven and five—that autism is like having a mental superpower. I described how we are very motivated to discover our world. We will find certain interests all-consuming and will thirst for more knowledge. Our unique ability to think creatively and outside the box can feel effortless, but those without this talent are often lost—even if we explain our logic. Autism creates a specialist mindset, where most others are generalists. This does not make us better or worse, just different.
Using a figurative example my children would understand, I compared our brains to a computer that is never turned off, with every program running at the same time. I talked about how autism allows us to notice everything around us, which is good and bad. Like computer programs left running, our active minds are always observing and we do not miss much, but it can also be overwhelming to our “hardware.” Too much sensory input can be stressful and disorienting in the short-term, and chronically it will develop into long term anxiety. While a computer under stress can be turned off, our brains cannot. This is why we have meltdowns. It is our minds’ and bodies’ way of telling us there is too much happening for our brains to process. Since humans have no shut off button, we need to listen to our bodies and step away. Later we will learn to filter the extra information, like closing unnecessary programs or apps on our computer. This takes time and lots of practice, but it can be learned.
In educating my children on the difficulties of social interactions, I described examples from their lives. I used actual situations as model for times when they interacted by sharing their passions and interests, without any conversation reciprocation. I expressed how difficult it is for them and myself to see things from another perspective. This is why we share those things familiar to us. Some people will see this as being self-centered. They will not understand our reasons, and that is okay. This is why we must learn to takes turns in conversation, and read facial expressions and body language. We need to identify our emotions and express them in appropriate situations, while simultaneously following unwritten social rules in neurotypical contexts outside of our home. I assured then that these may be hard skills to master and will feel unnatural, but will become easier over time.
I took several months to casually and repeatedly present this information. My children accepted my descriptions without questioning, which made me unsure if they heard or understood. It was not for several weeks when I saw my lessons integrated into their creative play, and I knew they were listening.
It is unfortunate that society will never completely accept our intricacies. Because of this I must train my children to adapt to a disorienting world, and that begins with understanding how their minds work. I recommend any parent in this situation should think about autism as an untapped gift that must be cultivated. The world will invariably teach our kids about their limitations, because that is what is observable. It is up to us, as parents, to round out that education by revealing the strengths of autism, explaining the reasons behind their experiences, and helping our children to overcome adversity. Meet your child at their level of comprehension with honesty and respect and, above all, offer them a safe haven of love and affirmation.
J.M. Shaw lives in Airdrie, Alberta with her husband and two young children. She has a background in x-ray technology, psychology, and personal training, as well variable personal interests in martial arts, airsoft, and running. A diagnosis of autism for herself and both her sons has begun an incredible journey of understanding, acceptance, and life-long learning. She has immensely enjoyed writing creatively for more than thirty years, and with many novels in various degrees of completion. Visit her website at www.jmshawauthor.com.