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How to Explain Autism to a Child Who’s Diagnosed

March 1, 2024

One of the hardest things I’ve ever tried to do is explain autism to my oldest son. He was diagnosed shortly before his eighth birthday. His introduction to autism spectrum disorder came in the form of his younger brother’s diagnosis, and it was clear that Jeremy and Joey were at two different parts of the spectrum. How do you explain something so complex to someone so young?

My wife and I had to discuss what autism spectrum disorder was and how it can affect everyone differently. Joey is nonverbal, so we had to reassure Jeremy that he wouldn’t lose his speech just because his brother couldn’t talk. It was a difficult process that took more than one conversation. But it’s a question every parent probably asks, “How do you explain autism to a child?”

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Why you should tell your child they have autism

The most important thing a parent can do is to respect their child. Explaining autism is not an easy task, but a parent runs a greater risk if the autistic child learns about their diagnosis from someone other than their parents.

Depending on where your child falls on the autism spectrum, they may be able to understand the diagnosis and appreciate their unique situation. But, if they find out from someone other than their parents, they may not be as responsive to their parents’ attempts to help them in the future.

There are obvious fears but also benefits when it comes to your child knowing about autism. However, helping children understand autism doesn’t prevent them from doing many things should be paramount.

Working together, parents can help their autistic children avoid common misconceptions and harmful myths while promoting an inclusive environment. It will also allow parents to help children learn how to advocate for themselves as they grow older.

When should you talk to your child about autism?

Depending on your child’s age and where they fall on the spectrum, it can be difficult to know the correct time to talk to them about their autism diagnosis.

It’s important for parents to be ready to talk about the diagnosis with their children and for the child to be ready to accept the news. This is different for every child and every parent.

A majority of children are diagnosed quite young, meaning the parents may want to wait until they are older to tell them. However, if a child is older when they are diagnosed, parents may be able to tell them sooner.

When my older son was diagnosed, he was at an age where he had been introduced to autism through his brother, and we believed he was old enough to understand. We were able to tell him immediately following his diagnosis while the doctor who diagnosed him was present.

A doctor talking to a boy
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If this is an option, the doctor could answer your child’s question. We still had to have follow-up conversations to answer more questions, but we were able to provide him with the appropriate support at the right time to tell him.

Having the doctor present as a trusted adult helped us explain autism to him, but the doctor may not be an option for every parent. Family members could help you engage with your child if the child and selected family members have a special bond.

Many children may have trouble understanding, so it is important to encourage them to ask questions. This may help them understand the condition better.

How to explain autism to your child

Once you’ve decided when to tell your child about their diagnosis, you must then figure out how. Take into account how your child reacts to certain challenges around them before deciding. But some ways can help ease the transition into telling them.

Start mentioning autism early

For a younger child, it may be a good idea to incorporate autism using popular culture. For our son, when we suspected he may have autism like his brother, we introduced him to autistic characters on television.

This happened to coincide with Sesame Street introducing its first autistic character, Julia. We used her to help him understand, first his brother’s and then his diagnosis.

Introducing the concept early was critical to helping him better understand the challenges his brother and he may face. It also helps promote empathy from him for other children with autism.

Make the conversation polite

The initial conversation needs to be light. Autism can be a heavy topic, especially from a child’s perspective, but highlighting the positive and keeping the conversation friendly can help boost the child’s self-esteem.

While there are some negatives to autism, avoid negative connotations. Children with autism, especially those with low support needs, can learn and understand, leading to more self-acceptance.


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Explain differences and strengths

Autism affects communication skills and social skills in many children on the spectrum, but that doesn’t have to be a negative.

Using age-appropriate language, many adults can help their children with autism recognize how the neurodevelopmental disorder makes them act differently from their neurotypical peers. Those differences can then be relayed into strengths as they grow and develop.

Provide encouragement and support

Explaining autism to a child on the spectrum can be tough, but parents can be encouraging and supportive during the discussion. Parents should let their children with autism know there are many resources available to help them understand and accept their diagnosis.

ABA therapy is available to help with some of their physical struggles. Visual aids can be used to help the child with repetitive behaviors and social cues they may be missing. It’s important for children to know they are not alone on this journey.

Allow for time and questions

Children with autism will need time to process the conversation. As parents, the best thing we can do is allow them the time they need to process that information. We should also allow and encourage honest questions to help improve understanding and recognize potential challenges along the way.

Don’t forget to take care of yourself

Explaining autism to a child is a difficult undertaking, but you’re not alone. Lean on trusted family members for support. Other children who may have a diagnosis or may be related to an autistic child can help your child. Resources and support are out there for both the children and their adults.

It’s normal to worry about your child’s future horizons and possible low self-esteem. Make sure both you and your child get enough opportunities for social interaction and self-care. You can foster an understanding environment for your child and others on the spectrum.

A hand on a man's shoulder showing support
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FAQs

Q: How do you explain autism to a child without autism?

A: Since a neurotypical child can’t relate to a personal experience, try using examples and stories to help them understand. This can remove many misconceptions and help them understand when another child doesn’t make eye contact or follow social norms.

Q: What is the easiest way to describe autism?

A: Autism can best be described as a lifelong developmental condition that can affect a person’s communication and social skills, with possible repetitive behaviors.

Q: Is autism misdiagnosis common?

A: As of right now, researchers have been unable to determine how common an autism misdiagnosis is because it’s impossible to verify how many kids with autism haven’t been diagnosed yet. Still, many researchers believe misdiagnosis is a common problem.

Q: What is autism often confused with?

A: Autism has many overlapping symptoms with other developmental disorders like ADHD and OCD, leading to some confusion in their diagnoses.

References: 

Crane, L., Lui, L. M., Davies, J., & Pellicano, E. (2021). Autistic parents’ views and experiences of talking about autism with their autistic children. Autism, 25(4), 1161-1167.

Wheeler, M. (2020, May). Getting started: Introducing your child to his or her diagnosis of an autism spectrum disorder. https://www.iidc.indiana.edu/irca/learn-about-autism/getting-started-introducing-your-child-to-his-or-her-diagnosis-of-autism.html 

Kenny, L., Hattersley, C., Molins, B., Buckley, C., Povey, C., & Pellicano, E. (2016). Which terms should be used to describe autism? Perspectives from the UK autism community. Autism, 20(4), 442-462

Robison, J.E. (2019), Talking about autism—thoughts for researchers. Autism Research, 12: 1004-1006. 

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