“He’s Just Like You, Except He Has Autism.” How to Talk to Your Child

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Last night I had a conversation about diversity with my 4 year-old son.

My little guy was coloring and practicing writing his name when he mentioned that a child on his sports teams doesn’t speak.

“He doesn’t have any words, Mommy. It’s kind of weird.”

I immediately stopped what I was doing. I knelt beside him and began a conversation about diversity, inclusion, love and acceptance. It is a conversation that I plan to have with him and his siblings throughout their lives.

At the time of the conversation I wasn’t sure if the child my son was referring to was nonverbal, or an English language learner, so I asked. My son wasn’t sure, but I knew that part didn’t matter as much as the lesson he needed to learn about a world full of diversity.

“Kenny, do you remember your cousin Cannon?”

Cannon is my best and oldest friend’s first-born son. He is 7 years-old and has Autism. Cannon does not speak.

The talk.

I wanted to make the connection with a loved one so that my son could understand that the people we love are involved and affected by how we treat others. Our words and actions have the potential to hurt those we care about even when they aren’t directly involved.

“Did you know that Cannon doesn’t speak either?”

“He doesn’t? Oh… I didn’t know that, Mom.”

“Well, he’s just like you, except he has Autism.”

I explained to my son that, like Cannon, the boy on his team doesn’t speak, but that doesn’t mean there’s something wrong. It doesn’t mean he’s weird. I told him that every child and every person is different– that’s diversity, and diversity is a good thing. He can still be friends with his teammate, even if it takes a little extra effort to find fun things to do together. I explained to him that children with Autism –as well as those who might be a bit different in some other way– are capable of learning and have feelings just like he does. I conveyed my expectation that he stand up for any child who is being teased or intentionally left out. We talked about the differences we can see in others and those we cannot.

After a while I sensed that he was trying to digest too much information. I ended our talk to allow him time to process. There will be many opportunities to review and continue our discussion about diversity and its many forms. I really look forward to those teaching moments.

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What we can ALL do.

This morning I spoke with our team mom about my son’s teammate. She confirmed that the child is in fact both nonverbal and learning English. I didn’t ask for any further detail because I did not want to pry. I told her about the conversation I had with my son. She appreciated that I’d taken the time to talk things out with him, but I still don’t feel I’ve done enough. That is why I’m sharing this story. There is much more that all of us can do, and it begins with parents. It begins with talking to our kids when they encounter children (or adults) whom they perceive as different.

Talk to your children.

The conversation I had with my son is one that every parent needs to have with their children, as many times as opportunity presents itself. It can’t be a one-time talk. Kids learn through repetition and consistency, and their value systems are developed based on what is encouraged or accepted as appropriate in their homes.  My son now knows that it’s okay to be different and that he has a responsibility to speak for the voiceless. He knows that I will never tolerate the belittling or bullying of another child for any reason.

Tip: It helps to speak to children using language that they understand; we don’t want to leave them confused. If possible, give a recap or important points to remember at the end of your talk. Write these points down and save them for future use.

Give it time.

I realize that all of this may not sink in at once, but I feel confident that in time my child will understand the values I am instilling in him. I know that sometimes kids do and say nasty things, but I don’t ever want my children to intentionally cause others to feel isolated, alienated or disliked because they are different. Kids are learning and growing and they make mistakes; they deserve a bit of grace for that. But with that grace must come a lesson.

Tip: Remind your child of your talk after a few weeks (or when you feel it’s necessary/appropriate) to see how much they remember and what really sank in with them. Review the main points of your conversation.

Parents play an important role.

Being a mom isn’t just about you and your kids. Parenthood is about encouraging a generation of human beings to be good people. It’s our responsibility as parents to guide our children in the right direction, to offer them support and to support each other. My best friend is many, many miles away. I can’t hug her when she’s frustrated. I can’t give her a much needed break from the kids. We can’t steal away for a mom’s night out. And I can’t protect her from the stares of judgy strangers who think she’s a bad parent because her son is having a meltdown. What I can do is teach my children to be open and accepting, so that when they become parents they won’t stare or judge. In turn I expect my kids to teach my grandchildren to embrace diversity and appreciate differences in others.

Tip: Kids learn by example. Show your child how you embrace diversity. Offer examples of how you respect and care for others even if they are different from you. When you encounter someone whom your child sees as “strange,” acknowledge their curiosity and assure them that the person or child is indeed unique, important and loved.

Educate yourself, inform friends and family.

From scientific research to school websites and personal blogs, resources on special needs are abundant and growing. Click to learn more about Autism and other special needs. You can also visit the site my Shero and best friend created to share her son’s journey, Love for Cannon.

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Be the change.

I have several friends who have children with special needs and they are all amazing kids. They’re smart, ambitious, fun-loving and talented. They inspire their families every day and fill their homes with love and laughter. These kids deserve to live life fully and without fear of feeling rejected or alienated. I don’t want my kids or yours to miss out on the amazing relationships and experiences they can have with people they may initially see as different.

Our kids will (and should!) meet people from all walks of life throughout their lives. They will meet people with varying levels of physical, emotional or intellectual ability, people from different races, cultures and religions, and people different socioeconomic backgrounds than their own. None of these things makes one child less important than another. Let’s teach our children to value every person and every life, and to learn from all kinds of kids and families. It starts with us. Be the change you wish to see in the world. Be the grown up you wish to see your child become.

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Author
I'm a stay at home mom of three kids 4 and under, and all I ever want is a good nap. My goals in life are to love my husband forever, raise fantastic human beings, support and love on other moms, and occasionally take my own advice.

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