Help me explain autism to my child
November 13, 2009 12:14 PM   Subscribe

How do I explain autism to my six-year-old? We were watching a tv program that featured a family where five of the six children were diagnosed as being somewhere on the autism spectrum, and my daughter was asking questions about autism, what it is, etc. What's an age-appropriate explanation?

My daughter is a bright, compassionate, pretty average kid. We've always talked about how different people have different abilities, how their bodies might look different or work in different ways. She's had some experience with this herself, as she has vision issues that require wearing an eye patch for part of each day along with some pretty heavy-duty glasses. So she takes physical differences pretty much in stride.

But she's not had a lot of one-on-one interaction with people who may not be neurotypical. We want to continue our explanations in the vein of "different people have different abilities", but she's asking a lot of questions about why and how, etc, etc. Any suggestions on what to say or not say, any resources - especially kid's books - would be most welcome! Thanks!
posted by Lulu's Pink Converse to Human Relations (8 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
hmm i am not sure. Technically autism is so very broad. can range from the relaly bad to somebody who is normal expcept when in big crowds.

So i dont know if you can generally explain autism to a kid then just saying they are different. Maybe when they are like 8 or 9 it might be easier but not at 6.
posted by majortom1981 at 12:19 PM on November 13, 2009

The Friendship Puzzle
posted by zizzle at 12:32 PM on November 13, 2009

Best answer: Autism is very broad, indeed, but I'm not sure "they're different" is the right approach, really. Six-year olds can be pretty smart and inquisitive (yes, I have one too :), and while they find many things too abstract, it's probably better to just answer the questions as openly as you can, and give some examples (e.g. using analogies with more concrete disabilities, discuss various aspects of how social interactions usually work for your daughter and how things might be different if she'd been less interested in certain things, etc).

As for something to read with your daughter, a quick googling brought up this book.
posted by effbot at 12:38 PM on November 13, 2009

The newer American Sign Language sign for autism has both hands raised to forehead level and alternating hands as the signer closes their hand into a ball and hits their forehead to simulate an "assault on their senses/mind". (I wish i could find a youtube video for you)

You could run with this idea. That sounds, vision, touch, etc.. aren't perceived like they are to your little one.

Or you could simply tell your little one that they don't "think like she does". She thinks about the red ball, the austistic kid thinks about the red ball and the sound of the birds and the car that drove by and the smell of the rain all at once.

very basic, and not the complete truth.. but it's going in the right direction.
posted by royalsong at 12:49 PM on November 13, 2009

Best answer: The short answer:
"People with autism have brains that work differently."
The only currently truthful answer to "why?":
"Nobody knows."

A longer answer:

Here's (more or less) what we said to our 7 year old (6 at the time) when we got his Asperger's diagnosis:

Everybody has things that they're good at and things they need extra help with. Can you think of some things that you're good at? (music, math) How about some things you need extra help with? (getting along with other kids, getting along with teachers at school)

Scientists who study how people's minds work have noticed that some people have the same pattern of strengths and weaknesses that you do. You're really good at some particular things, especially the things you're most interested in, but you sometimes have trouble getting along with people because you don't understand what other people are thinking. One of the first people to describe this pattern was named Dr. Asperger, and we now call the pattern Asperger's Syndrome.

Having Asperger's Syndrome doesn't mean that there's anything wrong with you or that you're sick, just that your brain works a little differently from the way most people's brains do. You still need extra help with some things - that's why we take you to see (therapist's name) and why you go to (special ed teacher's) class. But the way your brain works is also responsible for some of the things you're best at - your special interest in music gives you the dedication to practice and get really good at the drums. We love you and we're here for you no matter what, and if you ever have any questions about this stuff, let us know and we'll try to find out the answer.

Here are some resources I've seen:
The Autism Acceptance Book
Since We're Friends: An Autism Picture Book
Can I Tell You About Asperger Syndrome?
This Is Asperger Syndrome
All Cats Have Asperger Syndrome
posted by Daily Alice at 12:57 PM on November 13, 2009 [6 favorites]

For what little this is worth -- I watched Puff the Magic Dragon for the first time in decades today, and cursory Googling brought up a number of claims re. Jackie's autistic spectrum status. I suppose he is certainly not 'neurotypical'...
posted by kmennie at 1:01 PM on November 13, 2009

I was browsing askmefi and read your question while at the same time visiting "Autism Awareness Center" in Second Life. There is a "distraction simulation" that visually represents some of experiences of autistic child. Worth a visit? (SL address)
posted by Jurate at 3:06 PM on November 13, 2009 [1 favorite]

The newer American Sign Language sign for autism has both hands raised to forehead level and alternating hands as the signer closes their hand into a ball and hits their forehead to simulate an "assault on their senses/mind". (I wish i could find a youtube video for you)

As with many things to do with ASL or autism, though, this sign is not universally favored. I know some people (including some with autism) who prefer to use the sign that means "talking to yourself", initialized with an A, while others prefer to spell it. The comments here have more options.

Sorry for the derail, but I think language choices are important.
posted by spaceman_spiff at 4:28 PM on November 13, 2009

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