Hi, it’s Kathy here! I am SO excited to be taking over the blog again today to chat with you all about Autism Awareness Month! If you missed my last blog(s) you can check them out here!
October is Autism Awareness Month which means it’s the perfect time to learn how to approach the topic of autism with your kids. Did you know that 1 in 66 kids in Canada is diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder? With such high rates of diagnosis and a society that has moved more toward inclusion, it’s likely that your child knows or will know someone who is autistic.
Though autism is a spectrum and no two people are the same, social communication is a hallmark of the disorder. Whether we realize it or not, nonverbal communication is a huge part of how we connect with one another. This communication style is often lost on people with ASD. Making friends or being what we consider “a good friend” doesn’t always come naturally to these kids.
All children want friends, and all humans crave connection. Let your child know that even though someone in their class or neighbourhood may seem indifferent or disinterested, everyone wants to feel included. We don’t have to be best friends and relentlessly try to connect with everyone we meet, but acknowledging other children daily whether or not they respond goes a long way toward a kinder and more accepting community.
So what is autism and what might it look like in your child’s life?
Autism seems overwhelming and complicated, but to explain it to a child is as simple as saying, “It’s a brain difference that causes developmental delays.” It basically boils down to the fact that what seems to come easily to most of us; (making friends, sharing what we are thinking with others, understanding give and take) can be really hard for someone diagnosed with ASD.
A neurotypical child may feel like an autistic child dislikes them, but an autistic child often has no idea how to accept an invitation or insert themselves into play. They usually need a lot of guidance and modeling before they can find their place within a group. The natural connections kids forge on the playground and in the classroom can be really confusing to a child with autism.
Another thing that can be tough for some kids on the spectrum is verbal communication. My son hardly spoke at all until he was six years old. When he was young there were times on the playground when I saw kids try to engage with him, and he literally could not respond to their questions. It either led to teasing, or the other children getting bored and leaving him alone.
It’s important to remind your child that just like making friends is easy for some people, and not others, talking can be the same. Without a lot of experience, autistic children can have a really hard time responding to everyday questions like “What’s your name?”. Encourage your child by letting them know, “It’s so great that you are acknowledging your classmates, even if they don’t respond. They hear you and see you, but they might not always know what to say. If it feels right, keep trying. Maybe one day they’ll answer you!”
My son takes a lot longer to process what is happening than most children, who can process social information within milliseconds. When he was in lower elementary it might have taken him an entire school day to process and respond to a comment someone made in the morning. He can now process day-to-day information within seconds because he has had so much practice and encouragement from peers, teachers, family, and neighbors.
Social communication is one piece of an autism diagnosis, but rigid and repetitive behaviors are another. This can look like: getting upset if the classroom routine changes suddenly, wanting to play in the same specific way every day, wanting to use the same supplies and toys without sharing, and getting frustrated when someone tries to join in the play.
If you were to hear about these behaviors, you might have an initial reaction of thinking… What a little jerk that kid is! That’s definitely how I would have felt in the past! And I think this is where compassion and kindness fit in. It’s so easy to make assumptions about others, but you can never really be sure if there is something more going on. It’s an important lesson for kids to do their best to be kind, and for us as parents to remember to model that as best we can.
Subtle daily decisions can make a world of difference in the life of a child. Thanks to really lovely classmates my son has developed language skills we could never have imagined when he was preschool aged. He loves going out to the local playgrounds and seeing his peers there. He feels supported and accepted within his community. All because of the patience and kindness of the kids he has known for years. Kids who didn’t need him to fit into a stereotypical box to consider him a good friend.
Friendships are ever-evolving, and what we value and look for in a friend is different for all of us. Consider asking your child, “What does friendship mean to you?”. Their answers might really surprise you. Creating an opportunity to talk about all the ways there are to be a good friend and help them to be more open-minded about the different connections they share with the different people in their lives gives them such an enriched childhood. It also creates a beautiful ripple effect throughout your community that will last for generations to come.
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