How to explain autism to a child: A conversation with my niece - Big A Bigger World

Uh, Aunt Dana, what is wrong with him?

I swallowed really hard and just looked into the eyes of my beautiful inquisitive niece. Curiosity was swirling around in her eyes as she gazed at Logan spinning and spinning around.

You see, I knew this moment would come. I knew that eventually, Logan’s differences would become a little more apparent, and his tribe would know he was different than them. While I knew this movement would come, I have to admit that I was not ready for it to be so soon.

Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t naïve to the fact that eventually I would get asked that question, I guess maybe I wanted to hold our perfect little tribe together for a little longer without any questions.

Logan’s tribe

5 kids sitting on a bench in a locker room

You see,  I have this really amazing set up with Logan’s tribe. My sister is my best friend, she comes along with her two beautiful little girls and her one rambunctious little guy. We get together frequently for family play-dates including Logan and Olivia. Four out of five of the kids are all equally nine months apart so it always makes for super fun visits. Together they are the fantastic five cousins, the unbreakable force.

I feel so much pride seeing them all together, playing, interacting, and just loving each other. With them Logan is equal, he is loved, included, safe, and one of the kids. This is his tribe, this is our tribe.

Every one of my sister’s kids takes Logan by the hand and include him in everything, not because of his quirkiness, not because of his autism, but because he is their cousin, their friend, and they truly love him.

They are at the age when things aren’t so clear, and the world isn’t so bad. They are innocent and full of love. They all giggle and laugh with Logan when they ask him questions like “What is your name?” and Logan responds with “Holy Guacamole.” Four little laughs follow the statement and a few seconds later Logan follows them with a deep belly laugh and beaming smile.

They giggle when Logan scripts movies verbatim, they get wide-eyed when Logan removes all his clothes and runs around naked and if Logan is lucky, his boy cousin will follow suit.

I watch them with their two bare bottoms running through the yard, carefree and having fun and I smirk and giggle just a little bit.

I get a little joy when I see them enter Logan’s world of autism without knowing, fearless, and embracing.

2 boys riding a train ride at Chuck E. Cheeses

They are patient with Logan when it takes him a while to warm up at the playground, they naturally respect his pace, they are okay when he refuses to do something, they show empathy and understanding more than most adults I know.

They have always seen Logan as well… Logan….

As an autism mom, all you want is for your kid to be loved and included. Logan is the happiest when he is part of the fantastic five cousins.

The conversation

When my niece asked what was wrong with him….

I frantically began searching for the right words.

What do I say?

How to do not change any aspect of their relationship.

Do I ignore what she asked? Do I change the subject? Do I simply brush it off and say he is just being silly?

I couldn’t simply let her see the obvious differences and not give her some sort of education. If I chose to ignore her questions, then she would come up with her own assumptions and conclusions. Talking to her about Logan’s autism allows her to know that she can ask questions and that asking questions is okay. Talking to her gives her the chance to develop empathy, compassion, and understanding.

See, Dannie is 7 going on 13, she is the leader of the kid tribe, her interactions with Logan follow suit for the rest of the tribe. So, I knew that I had education her with enough information for her understand while not impacting her and Logan’s relationship.

little girl wrapping her arms around little boy

So, I cautiously and gracefully had one of the most dreaded conversations with my niece I ever wanted to have. As we cracked and scrambled eggs to make her mom breakfast in bed, I explained Logan’s differences.

Part of me feared that explaining the differences to her would cause her to look at Logan in a different light but as we talked and cooked breakfast I could see as I would explain things she was beginning to have her own ah-ha moments.

While having this conversation with Dannie meant more to me than it meant to Dannie. She listened and took the information as fact and continued on her way. I watched her interaction with Logan in no way change and for the first time Dannie began understanding a small part of Logan’s quirkiness and for once perhaps she understood that differences are okay.

Children notice differences

When talking to a child about another child’s autism. You must have grace and look at what the child you are talking to can understand. Are they at the age to understand terms like autism or neurological differences?

Don’t make the conversation overwhelming and keep things as simple as possible. For my three-year-old, she knows we love Logan and we look out for Logan. That is the most she can understand at this time. As she gets older we will discuss the differences in everyone in our family, and our responsibilities to each other.

If I had simply told my niece he has autism, it would not have really helped her understand what she was questioning or set her up to be accepting of autism the future. She needs to have a base for understanding differences or disabilities.

Don’t be afraid to explain autism to a child

5 kids in front of Great Smoky Mountains National Park Sign - Copy

You see, too often parents that don’t have a child with autism or special needs really don’t know what to tell their child about disabilities. When they see a child with a disability, they quickly say “don’t stare” when they see a kid having a meltdown they quickly sweep in and “save” their child from exposure.

Instead, these are conversations parents should start having early. Talking about differences. Instead of saying don’t stare, teaching our kids to say hello. Instead of fearing a meltdown or tantrum, they should be asking if there is anything they can do to help. When your child is watching people communicating using sign, instead of telling them its rude to stare, explain to them that this is the way deaf people communicate and teaching them the sign for hello. When they see a child on the playground alone that is acting differently encourage them to play with them.

On a trip to Richmond, Logan saw two boys he was trying to play with. His words weren’t really coming out right and it came out in a mumble jumble. I stepped back to watch this interaction because honestly, he hadn’t really initiated play before. The two boys looked at Logan and walked away. He was different, and they wanted no part of that. I watched as their mom watched, not sure what to say to her children or what to do.

Logan walked over to me in tears and said, “Mom, my friends don’t want to play with me.”  My heart instantly broke, what a hard statement to hear from such a little kid. This was a great opportunity for this mom to teach her boys about differences, inclusion, and kindness.

But these interactions don’t just happen between children, it can be adults too.

My mother often uses a wheelchair for a way of getting around. I see so many times while in a store that if a child walks in front of her how quickly a parent scolds them and grabs the child out of the way. This just teaches the child that people in wheelchairs are scary and they better stay out of there way.

If you don’t know much about autism or autistic behavior it can seem weird, different, and sometimes scary. Differences are scary for most people. While I chose not to tell Dannie that Logan had autism. I wanted her to know more than just a term. I explained how autism affects Logan and gave her some understanding of Logan’s behaviors.

Everyone is different and that’s okay

5 kids in winter clothing riding on a car ride

I explained to her that everyone is created different, while I have brown hair her mom has blonde. When I get upset I like to be alone and her mom likes to go for a run. I explained how she likes shorts and her sister loves to wear dresses, there were differences, but they were not wrong.

I explained how some people look different and then some people think different. I explained that Logan’s brain worked differently than hers. I explain how some things may be easy for her, like making friends, being a leader, making people smile, and talking a lot, things like these are harder for Logan.

I explained how Logan’s brain works, and sometimes is a little harder for Logan to have some conversations, play well with others, and he learns things differently. I also explained how somethings that are hard for her can come easily to Logan, like memorizing things, reading, spelling, knowing a lot of random facts.  I really wanted to focus on the fact both kids had differences, and that while the differences were present they were what made each kid who they are. I wanted to focus more on the amazing things both Dannie and Logan can do instead of the things that hindered Logan.

They both are different children and they both have amazing talents and gifts. We talked about the fun and silly things they both could do. Dannie can climb monkey bars better than any kid I know, and Logan can dance and shake his booty to any beat.

So often people hear the word autism and they get taken back because there are so many negative connotations to the term. They often forget that sometimes autism is more than the word or condition it is part of the child, not the child completely.

I wanted Dannie to understand that having differences is okay and can be a good thing. Everyone has strengths.

The world would be a much better place if we looked at people regarding their strengths and what they can do instead of what they can’t do. Click To Tweet

two kids at the table of restaurant watching iPad

Explaining communication

I explained to her that sometimes you might have to ask Logan the same question twice. I explained how when she asked Logan what his name was, and he responded with “Holy Guacamole” that Logan didn’t understand what she asked and if she asked him again, that he would have told her correctly.

As Dannie poured the eggs into the pan, she said:

Sometimes I might have to ask him something twice? He won’t be upset?

Me: No, Dannie he won’t be upset, it will actually help him talk better with you.

She shook her head in understanding.

Sometimes Logan needs a little more time to respond and think a question thru, and she might have to have a little more patience with him.

I explained how sometimes Logan understands things better with a picture and it helps him talk better at times. That when she sees me showing Logan picture that I am helping him better understand what I am saying.

Explaining misunderstandings

5 kids playing in a creek

I was telling Dannie that sometimes Logan doesn’t get things that we commonly say and sometimes he doesn’t understand other people’s emotions. I also explained how sometimes Logan will not show so much emotion. I told her to think back to a couple weeks ago when we all the cousins were playing in the creek.

Do you remember when your mom told all you kids to say cheese when she was trying to take a picture?

Dannie: Uh huh..

Do you remember your mom telling Logan, ‘Why aren’t you happy?’ How come you never smile when I try to take our picture

Dannie: Uh huh..

Do you remember what Logan said?

Dannie: Yes… He said, “I am happy.”

You see Logan didn’t understand that when your mom was telling all of you guys to say cheese meant to smile. Logan was probably thinking what does playing in the creek have to do with cheese, and we all know Logan doesn’t like stinky cheese.

Dannie began to giggle and said:

Aunt Dana that is so silly.

Me: Did you see how your mom told Logan to show her if he was happy and he put a big smile on his face? Sometimes we have to explain things a little different and that’s okay.

Explaining behavior

Explaining Logan’s spinning was easy. I explained to her as Logan was a couple feet away from us spinning. Spinning is sometimes how Logan deals with things if he is overwhelmed. Dannie can take a walk, deep breathe, or count to 10, Logan spins and spins.

I explained to her that when Logan is excited he will also spin, this is the way he tries to control his excitement.  I watched Dannie quickly glace over and look as Logan was still spinning and she smiled a big smile and said:

He likes being here with us, doesn’t he?

Me: He sure does Dannie.

Explaining meltdowns

crying boy of 5 kids during family photos

The fantastic five cousins have spent a lot of time together, they have unfortunately been able to see Logan have a meltdown. I have watched all their faces look at him puzzled, I can see they aren’t sure what is going on, and they want to help but don’t know what to do. I explained to Dannie how sometimes things can be too much for Logan. Sometimes the noise, the lights, new people, new events and can be too much to Logan. I told her to imagine being in a scary place, the noises, the different lights, and then not being to tell someone that you are scared.

What would you do?

She quickly responded:

I would cry.

Me: That’s right, sometimes Logan can feel like that.

I told her how when we had times with Logan like once at the playground and once at their church.

I explained while she wanted to help Logan and give him a hug and he wanted nothing to do with that.  I explained when that happens to Logan he just needs to step back and to be alone for a little bit. I explained that when this happens the best thing we can do to help Logan calm down is by being quiet and giving him something that helps him feel safe. I told her that sometimes I might have to take Logan to another room until he is all calmed down, so he can feel safe.

Not just Logan

I also explained to Dannie there will be other kids that she will see, and she will think what is wrong with them. I told her that when she sees someone alone on the playground and they are a little different from her, that doesn’t mean they aren’t a fun or nice person to play with. I said:

Sometimes you like to wear silly outfits and patterns and someone could easily say what is up with that girl. You’d still want them to play with you right, even if your clothes were a little different? How would you feel if someone thought oh she’s different I don’t want to play with her?

Dannie: Not very good.

I told her that sometimes it just takes one person to be brave, kind, and nice to a different kind.

What if you were that person? What if you showed everyone else on the playground there was nothing to be afraid of? Do you think you could be that person?

Dannie: Of course, I can Aunt Dana… “Logan, come on it’s time to eat, come to sit next to me.”

 

Have you ever had to tell another child about autism or a disability? How did you handle this conversation? Comment below to share your experience or helpful advice. If you found this post helpful be sure to share away, pin this page to Pinterest or share on your social media sites.