Family, Kids & Relationships

A script for what to say to your neurotypical child about autism

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If you visit a grammar school classroom today, you’re likely to see at least one child on the autism spectrum. The CDC in the United States has updated the stats to reflect that 1 in 59 children are affected, which means nearly 2 percent of the school age population is diagnosed with autism!

That means that many neurotypical children will be sitting next to an autistic child or meeting on the playground for the first time—and it probably won’t be the last time. 

When your child is old enough to understand the differences in people, probably around age three when social comparison starts, begin to explain how autistic children experience the world differently. Here are some specifics to get you started talking with your children about their autistic classmates and friends.

Autism is a social disability, not a disease.

You can tell your child…

“Autistic people are not sick, or bad, or broken or wrong. Their brain processes information differently, and that influences the way they think and the way they interact with others, and sometimes influences the way they use their body. They might behave in a way that seems odd to you, but inside they are just the same, and very often they are very, very smart.”

Neurological dis-regulation is part of autism.

So-called “stimming” behaviors are the individual’s way of regulating themselves and returning to calm. You can tell your child…

“If you see your classmate flapping their hands, chewing on their shirt, rocking in their seat, or doing some other physical gesture repeatedly, recognize that they do not feel comfortable in their own body at that moment, and it is not their fault. This is how they calm their body. When have you felt very uncomfortable and what do you do when you want to calm yourself down?”

Autistic people can suffer from sensory-hypersensitivity, which increases their discomfort and sensory overload.

You can tell your child…

“Everything is notched up ten times for your autistic friends and classmates. So, if something bothers you or distracts you, like the noise in the gymnasium, it probably bothers your autistic friend ten times more. Whenever something bothers you, check to see if your friend also appears uncomfortable.”

Autistic people process incoming data from the environment differently, and sometimes get lost in their own thoughts.

You can tell your child…

“Your autistic classmates have a different way of seeing the world. Their brain is like a laser beam, instead of a spot light like the majority of us. That means sometimes they get so deep into their own world that they don’t hear what is being said to them, or understand what you are saying the first time. You might have to ask more than once, or wait for an answer.” 

Autistic people may have difficulty understanding abstract concepts that are not presented in black and white or linear terms.

Autistic people don’t readily read between the lines and sometimes don’t understand abstract concepts, so speaking in concrete terms supports their understanding. You can tell your child…

“Be patient with them. If their laser beam brain is focused on something else, it might take them some time to refocus that laser on your words and then process what you’ve said. Sometimes it might take them longer to respond than you expect from other friends. Pause after you speak, and don’t rush them or immediately try to explain yourself more, which can be overwhelming. Give them a chance to ask clarifying questions, and if needed, a differently worded explanation might be helpful.”

Autistic people have a full range of emotions, hopes, dreams, and fears. 

Just because they have challenges in social situations or in interpersonal communications doesn’t mean they aren’t interested in friends. You can tell your child…

“They are just like you on the inside. They don’t want to be left out, teased, made fun of, or be laughed at, but because of their laser beam brain, sometimes they don’t know how to act in situations, and sometimes they can get it wrong—but so can we sometimes!”

Be compassionate.

Their life might be tough, because they need to make adaptations in many areas in order to be able to function effectively, especially in the areas of motivation, social interactions, and learning. You can tell your child…

“Be kind to your autistic classmates. Having autism is a bit like being a left-handed person in a right-handed world. The world we live in was not built for the way their mind works, so everything is much harder for them than it is for you.”

Autism is a social disability and difficulty with language is one of the common characteristics.

You can tell your child…

“Autistic people often won’t seem interested in making friends or in talking with you. Don’t take it personally, and don’t ignore them. Remember that communication is very hard for them, and they may not know what to say, or be able to find the words to talk with you at the moment, but usually they still want to be liked and have friends.”

This post was edited from its original form in response to feedback from the autism community. Thank you to those of you who reached out with suggestions, and to all our readers for being engaged and thoughtful members of the ParentsTogether community.

Jeanne Beard, founder of the National Autism Academy and author of “Autism & The Rest Of Us”, has decades of experience in the trenches with Asperger’s Syndrome and Autism Spectrum Disorders, and the people diagnosed with them. In addition to her essential life experience creating functional, nurturing, and balanced relationships with those on the spectrum, Jeanne was mentored by clinical expert Timothy Wahlberg, PhD during the writing of his clinical guide “Finding the Gray: Understanding and Thriving in the Black and White World of Autism and Asperger’s.” Through her incredible insight into the thoughts, experiences, and challenges of those on the spectrum AND of the rest of us, Jeanne builds a bridge to hope and a better future for us all. For more information, support, and parent training, visit: