Introducing Me: Teaching New Friends About Autism

Should your child’s peers know what autism is, and that your child has it?

The answer depends on the child and the situation.  Our family decided early on that it would be more helpful than harmful, and so every year, when our children enter school, we have made sure that there is an opportunity for our children’s new classmates to learn about our children and what autism means.

The result is very noticeable.  We find that sharing some carefully chosen information opens the doors to supportive classmates, friendships, happiness at school, and a more comfortable place for learning.

Our purpose is not to single our child out, but to give other children an understanding of their behavior as a normal, understandable response to their reality.  We want to show the other children that we are more alike than different, and we just respond to the same needs and wants in different ways.

Plan to take a strengths-based approach.

Autism is not less, it is not a reason for pity or caretaking.  It is a different way of perceiving and thinking that means your child is an interesting and fun person to get to know.
We always have started with sharing things that show our child to be a regular and unique child  – interests, likes and dislikes, relationships, friends.
Then we move on to what autism is, as one of the many characteristics of our child, framed as useful information so that others can understand and help if needed.
Better yet – with the teacher’s help, can this presentation be a part of beginning of year activities where EACH child’s personality, likes, and dislikes are explored?

Consider how your child feels about sharing.

Do they know they have autism?  Can they contribute to the discussion?  Even if they are nonverbal, maybe they can help make a poster or collage to share who they are.  Maybe they are able to create their own presentation, participate in an interview, or answer questions.  Maybe they can make a video with you ahead of time to show the class.  The possibilities are endless.
The point here is that your child’s story is being told – it’s their story.  As much as possible, a child should be telling their own story, and they should be comfortable with what is being shared.

If a child isn’t ready to disclose that they have autism, it might be possible to work neurodiversity into the health curriculum.  It’s a way to build understanding of differences into the school setting, without singling anyone out.  Jennifer Katz’s “Respecting Diversity” lessons from her book, Teaching to Diversity, is a good way to weave it in.  Paula Kluth’s book, You’re Going to Love This Kid also has a useful and well-organized section explaining autism.

Welcome questions.

You never know what someone is thinking unless they tell you.  Kids naturally have questions – as we all do – and fortunately are often more willing to ask them!  If they ask why your child does something, you have a chance to expain that there is a reason for your child’s behavior, and can also point out common feelings that perhaps are just expressed differently.  Some people smile when they are happy…some people jump and flap their hands.  Once children understand, they are usually very accepting.

One way is to invite students to write their questions down ahead of time, before you (the parent) or your child plan to answer them.  You can read them over ahead of time and think of the best way to answer, rather than being put on the spot.  It’s the strategy used in this helpful blog post, also referenced below.

Resources

As a parent, I have most often gone into my children’s classes and talked with them, but I didn’t come up with my talk completely on my own.

I especially liked this blog series from MOM NOS: A Hair Dryer Kid in a Toaster Brained World.  The presentation is mostly in one post, but in a series of posts, she explains how she prepared and how her son’s class reacted.  The way she interacts with her child and his peers sets a wonderful tone for acceptance.

I also borrowed ideas from The Autism Acceptance Book by Ellen Sabin.  It’s written like a workbook for kids (grade 3 and up) to think about how we all have much in common, while still explaining important aspects of autism.

If you are in a faith-based school, there is a really good lesson outline in the book Autism and Your Church by Barbara Newman.  There’s a great analogy comparing the image of keys unlocking new activities to the often uneven developmental process our kids experience – along with a reminder that nobody learns to do the same things at the same time.

Also consider asking an adult with autism to be a guest speaker.  Meeting someone who has grown up with autism sends a powerful message that regular people have autism, and that children with autism change and grow just like everybody else.  Of course, you’ll want to talk to them ahead of time about the format and content of the sharing time.

A couple of picture books we have used as conversation starters are I’m Here by Peter H. Reynolds, and Looking After Louis by Lesley Ely.  Both would work best with elementary school age children.

If you’re interested in using a video, there are a whole lot out there and some are better than others.  None are perfect, as it’s very hard to depict information about autism that balances the perspectives of people with autism as well as the view of non-autistic people trying to understand.  Make sure you preview them!  Here are a few that we have used:

Amazing Things Happen

This one, as you can see, has won many awards and is recommended by many.  The only thing missing, I think, is exactly what amazing things happen because of autism.  It would be balanced by some discussion of the benefits of autism, perhaps a post like this one.

What is Autism?: Let’s Talk About It

This short film is created by someone with autism, and focuses on the difficulties in communication many experience.  It suggests recognizing that there are alternative ways to communicate, and that patience is worth the effort.

BBC: My Autism and Me

This one is a little dated, but again, is created by a teen with autism.

Intricate Minds III: Understanding Elementary School Classmates

This is an excerpt from a video available for purchase. It’s a bit dated, but it does cover sensory differences well, and presents kids with autism talking about their feelings and experiences.

Those Who Adapt, Inspire

This isn’t about autism, exactly, but it IS about connecting with people, regardless of their ability to communicate. Other videos from this special ed teacher’s mission to recognize all people as worthy of celebrating might also be useful for changing the way kids see people they might otherwise overlook.

Ask An Autistic #23 – What Is Autism?

Amythest Schaber’s video blog is a favorite of many people on the spectrum, and she does a fantastic job explaining what autism is, as well as other topics related to autism.  Her videos would be better for older children and teens.

A Child’s View of Sensory Processing

This one is good for younger children – focusing on the differences in sensory perception many people with autism experience, and how a child might cope with those differences.

Any other excellent resources to recommend for teaching children and teens about autism?  Please share in the comments!

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