June 27, 2014

How To Explain Autism to a 5 Year Old

I've seen a lot of talk recently about people debating if and when they should disclose their child's autism diagnosis to them. I am firmly in the disclosure camp, and the sooner the better.

I'll use an analogy to explain why. Let's pretend autism isn't in your brain, but a differently coloured ear that hears differently. Kids don't really notice colour, but they do notice differences. So they see their two ears, but one is blue. No one else in their family has a blue ear and they can see that. This blue ear means they hear things at a different pitch from non-blue ear people. They can still hear just as well, but the pitch is off, which means sometimes sounds get scrambled. They can see other non-blue ear people have entertaining conversations and laughing, but they can't always follow. They start to feel left out. People assume the blue-eared people don't understand, so they simply stop including them. The blue-eared person starts to wonder what is wrong with them. They think they are flawed.
Keep in mind, there is nothing inherently wrong with the blue-eared people, they just hear slightly differently. With time, they can also be taught to hear different pitches differently, or people make an effort to adjust their pitch for the blue-eared people.

Snap back to reality and autism is no longer about blue-eared people, but I hope the above makes some sense. In general, when you don't explain why someone is different and what that means, the conclusion a child will almost always make is that there is something wrong. Children take on a whole lot of different emotions and issues that have nothing to do with them. The same way a child will blame itself for a parent's divorce, they will blame themselves when they have problems understanding or making friends, unless you explicitly clarify things for them. (And even then, they still might, but you can at least try to make sure they don't blame themselves)

Explaining autism to them - both the gifts and the downsides - gives them the language they need to explain it to others. Over time, it will give them the confidence to be able to advocate for themselves. Unfortunately, as much as we would like to, we will not always be there for our children and they will have to face this world without us. They need the tools to be able to have their needs met when you're not able to fight for them.

So how to do explain autism? Well, I use opportunities to slip in little factoids now and then. If we're waiting for the bus and have nothing else to do, I say, "hey, do you know you're Autistic?"
He usually says, "yeah" now. "You know it means your brain works differently from other people's?"
Sometimes I tell him my brain is like his, but not dad's. Sometimes I tell him it's why he struggles with some things, but also has an amazing eye for details.
Then I leave it at that. Because at his age, I don't think he needs tons of details. He just needs to start learning the vocabulary, and to know there's nothing bad or wrong about him, just different.

I think about how I grew up without a diagnosis and how confusing it was for me. I blamed myself for so many things. I don't want him to have that experience. Knowing how his brain works means he can work with it, rather than against it, and he can learn tools or coping skills to be more effective.

Explaining autism (or Down's, or SPD, or Apraxia) is not a one-time thing. It's an on-going dialogue based on acceptance and trust.

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