In 2021, the CDC reported that “approximately 1 in 44 children in the U.S. is diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD).” This means that it’s highly likely that your child has at least one classmate on the autism spectrum in their classroom. But how can you share this type of autism information for kids and help your child create a more inclusive learning space for their autistic peers?
In honor of National Autism Awareness Month in April, we’re providing some guidance on understanding autism for kids, including five tips for communicating with and supporting autistic classmates.
How do you describe autism to kids?
Teaching your child what autism is and how it may affect their friends and classmates is the first step in helping to create a more inclusive classroom space for children of all needs and abilities.
When sharing autism information for kids, it’s best to start with an explanation of what this disorder is and how it may impact their peers. For example, “Some people are born with a brain that functions differently, which means they might think differently or learn differently than you. It might be harder for them to make friends or follow directions, or they might be extra sensitive to things that don’t bother you. It’s important to be open to the idea that not everyone learns or behaves the same way—and that’s okay!”
Here are a few other tips for explaining autism to neurotypical children:
- Emphasize that everyone is different. Everyone learns differently, plays differently, communicates differently. This is normal and part of what makes everyone unique! Some people may just have a harder time learning, playing, or communicating than others—and that’s okay.
- Avoid words like “good” or “bad” or “normal” when talking about autism and how it affects people. Instead, use words like “different” when describing how autism may affect your child’s classmates. Focus on abilities and passions, rather than any limitations or struggles.
- Come from a place of empathy and understanding. Encourage your child not to make assumptions or judgments when it comes to interpreting why one of their classmates may behave a certain way.
- Encourage curiosity. Curiosity implies a lack of judgment and a focus on connection. Autism is not a secret, nor is it something to be afraid of, so encourage your child to ask questions.
- Model acceptance in your own behavior. Children learn from your words, but more so from your actions, so model empathy, curiosity, and acceptance in your own behavior when interacting with autistic classmates.
5 Tips for Supporting and Communicating with Autistic Classmates
Providing specific tips and suggested behaviors is a great way to empower your child to approach interactions with autistic classmates with confidence and curiosity. Here are five tips for understanding and explaining autism to classmates:
1. Take initiative to include classmates
It’s easy for students with autism to be left on their own, since their classmates may not understand how to interact with them. Encourage your child to take the initiative to reach out and include classmates who may be sitting or playing by themselves.
2. Be patient
Classmates with autism may have a hard time communicating or expressing their wants and needs. Encourage your child to be patient with their autistic classmates, give them lots of time to answer questions, and to not be afraid of having to prompt them multiple times for information.
3. Bring your own toys
Some autistic individuals may be possessive over their toys and become aggravated or distressed when they are asked to share. Marcus Autism Center recommends that classmates of students with autism bring their own set of toys to play with an autistic peer. They recommend “bringing two balls over to your friend and sharing one of them...” which also gives your classmate the chance to watch how you play with the ball and perhaps model your behavior.
4. Communicate clearly
When communicating with a classmate who has autism, it’s best to speak slowly, clearly, and specifically. Encourage your child to do so and use gestures and facial expressions to help better communicate with their autistic peer.
5. Take an interest in their interests
Some people who have autism have a vested interest in specific topics. Encourage your child to ask their classmate what they like, so they can play with them on their terms. This is also a good communication tip for neurotypical classmates—everyone likes to talk about their interests. Arming your child with this communication and connection tactic can aid them in forming relationships for years to come.
Connections Academy® is devoted to providing a safe space for students to learn through its online public school program. The collaborative community and teachers support the varying needs of its students, including students with autism. Learn more about Connections Academy and how it works here.