Please tell your children that they’re autistic

This morning, I read something that made me little sad…

Last night, there was a current affairs show on TV that discussed autism. I don’t usually watch TV, and I wouldn’t have made an exception to watch that show. I already knew that it was going to be told from the perspective of a sibling of an autistic person. This morning,a parent wrote how her 12 year old son had watched the show with her, and at the end of it, he asked her whether he was autistic. She replied yes, and sugar coated it with “that’s why you’re so good at these things.”

This topic is often discussed in parenting circles. Do you tell your child their diagnosis? It never ceases to amaze me that many parents seem to hold the opinion that if they tell their child their diagnosis, it will make their child feel different.

Why do parents think this? Is it because neurotypical people genuinely do not know what it’s like to feel different? I wonder what that’s like – that ability to fit in so seamlessly with the neuromajority that you don’t even realise that neurodivergent people are very aware from very early that we do not fit in in the same way.

There are three things that I want to say about this:

1. Your child most likely already feels different

If they do not know the reason for why they feel different, then they might blame themselves. This could damage their self-esteem. Telling a child that there is a reason for their difference and that there is a name for their difference connects them to the larger autistic community. They get to know that they are not alone, even while they’re too young to interact online. They get to know that there are other people who share similar struggles.

2. Don’t sugarcoat it

Don’t resort to stereotyped stories about savant skills, and don’t focus only on the positives. Be realistic. Be honest. Your child is disabled, but being disabled is not a negative thing. Being disabled is just a basic fact of being autistic because we cannot participate in society to the same degree as non-autistic people. Society is simply not set up for us. Not talking about the challenges and the struggles sets expectations for your child that they cannot meet.

I’m also not suggesting that you focus only on the positives. I am suggesting that you have a balanced conversation and that you discuss the struggles they may face as a result of the way in which society has been set up rather than something that is wrong with them.

3. Assume they understand

Don’t assume that your child won’t understand for whatever reason. Presume competence. Talk to them with the assumption that they will understand. I’m not saying read out the full diagnostic report. I’m saying don’t not talk about it because you think your child won’t understand. Not talking about something makes it seem shameful, and when you realise that there is something shameful about you, this effects self-esteem.

You need to tell them that they’re different from most people, and that it is ok to be different. There are some things that they will be very good at, and there are some things that they will struggle with. Please don’t let them find out on their own.

Please don’t make it a once-off discussion never to be addressed again. It needs to be an ongoing conversation which progresses over the course of your child’s lifetime. You can do so much to enable your children to be proudly autistic while they’re young. Please don’t miss that opportunity. Please don’t let them grow up to be adults who are unaware of their identity, and unsure of themselves. I was that young adult once, and it took me years to find out who I am.