How to explain Autism to a child?

Unfortunately - for both you and I, this post is posed as a question rather than a solution. How do you explain something as complicated as autism to a child who's attention has already wandered before you even start to answer?

With difficulty, and lots of it. Mini Man is almost seven, and was diagnosed when he was three. Despite attempted interventions from various well meaning members of the United Kingdom's National Health Service, and a botched attempt by his former school - he still has not learned to talk in a way that is coherent to anybody other than those who are very close to him.

His sister, Mini Madam aged four, has never known him to talk, and she picked up the skill oh so easily (and hasn't stopped since). Now she, and other children who come into contact with him, are beginning to notice there is something different.

A couple of times recently, a child has innocently asked: "Why doesn't/can't he talk?" It still leaves me flummoxed, as I always seem to be caught off guard. It's easy to explain to an adult - as most have heard of autism.

Boy, some of them (the adults) don't really get the gist of autism; "He doesn't look autistic," or "We're all a little bit autistic." Yeah. People still say that, and I still resist the urge to kick them in the teeth... Maybe adults aren't so easy to explain to after all...

I digress. Most adults get it, and understand. Even if loosely. But children aged four just don't have the capacity to fully comprehend what you're explaining. I say: "He hasn't learned to talk yet," and then they ask why. That's when the whole thought process kicks in, especially if it isn't Mini Madam I'm talking to, but somebody else's child:

  • Noooo... Why did you ask me this question?
  • Couldn't you ask your own caregiver?
  • Am I allowed to explain to somebody else's child?
  • if I mention autism, will it present a whole new set of questions for their parents?
  • Never mind the parents! I feel a whole new host of questions coming on.
  • Hey, don't ask me, kiddo. I was just as blindsided and left in the dark as you will feel by this new word.
  • Oh, look. You've lost interest. Until the next time!

It was a similar kind of thought process when considering how best to explain to his sister (with the other parental bodies left out). Until tonight. Tonight was tough, but cute. I blame Disney for making her dream these things but she got a little upset And told me that she dreamed she had given him a potion that made him lose his voice. Awwww!

I interrupt this Public Service Announcement with a side note: A few weeks ago, Mini Madam made me cry by telling me she would make a magic potion that would make Mini Man talk. It was a moment of genius, and I had no idea how to tell her that potions don't really work. Instead I told her there are some doctors working on it... Somewhere. I have no idea why I didn't blog at the time - but there's some background for you.

This time, there was no fobbing off. I explained to her about the brain, and how it stores everything we learn. I also told her that his brain is a bit different to most people, so it makes it difficult for him to talk. I even used the word autism, telling her that was the thing he had that made his brain different. I also told her that we have to love him the same as any other person, and just talk to him like she would anybody else.

I'm not sure that was the best way to tackle the subject with her, but I did a little search tonight, and I found Kids Health to be a useful resource to help explaining autism to children.

So that's our latest milestone, and an introduction to the adventures of The Autism Experience. The children will both be off to school in August - her to a mainstream, and him to a specialist school where it looks like they know their stuff.

How would you describe autism?

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