Here is another great piece from Trapper Shafer, an autistic adult and father to both neurotypical and autistic children. Enjoy!
How do you tell them
How I talked to my twins about being autistic
I hear this question asked quite frequently. While every case is unique, I feel strongly that it will benefit the child to know what they are cognitively able to process as they grow. I thought it would be helpful to other parents for me to share my experiences and how I am talking to my autistic twins about them being autistic.
What’s Wrong With Me
I have memories as far back as five years old in which I was consciously aware that I was different from the other kids. Being so naturally inquisitive I spent years trying to figure out why I was different. In first and second grade I rarely spoke to peers because I felt so different from everyone else. Granted, autism wasn’t as well known or understood at that time as it is now, so I don’t fault anybody for not telling me. That doesn’t change the fact that it would have been nice to know. These feelings only intensified as I got older. Then in 6th grade is when the teasing and bullying started. That only made it more obvious to me that I was different. This bullying got so bad that eventually during the second half of my freshman year of high school. I would skip lunch so I could hide in a back hallway corner of the gym building. I spent two years of my high school career hiding in that hallway. Some girls from the senior class that rode my bus took me under their wing, but despite them being friendly and kind I rarely spoke with them at school. After failing senior year, my parents transferred me to a charter school that had less than 100 students in all grade levels combined. My graduating class had less than 30 students. I barely graduated. The school was nice enough to round my GPA up to 2.0 so I could graduate. It was almost five years later that I found out why I was different. I was 23 years old when I finally learned I was autistic.
A Better Way
Now, let me first say that I’m not a specialist in child psychology, nor am I an expert in child development. However, this information is based on the experiences I had and the experiences that come from raising my autistic twins. With that little disclaimer out of the way. This is the method I have taken to tell my sons and their older siblings the twins are autistic.
The twins are three and a half at the time of writing this. To keep things in a way that they can understand, when they have a sensory overload, meltdown, or someone points out their autistic behaviors. Like when they are lining up all their toys or using an item to make the same noise repeatedly for minutes on end. Staring at the object like they’re trying to figure out how it makes that noise.
In moments after a meltdown, I let them know that my brain and their brains are just a little bit different than everyone else’s. That our brains can do some really cool things that other people’s brains can’t do. Continuing on I tell them that sometimes our brains can get stuck and make us upset. I reassure them that it’s okay when our brains get stuck, we just need to take some time and get our brain “unstuck.”
Then there are those moments when someone points out that they’re lining up all their toys. I usually start lining them up with them. And I just ask them if they like lining up their cars or whatever object they are playing with. They usually say yes. As we continue lining up toys I will say that sometimes it makes us have to have everything the same, because our brains are really good at finding patterns. Finding patterns makes our brains happy because then we know what we are doing or where we are going.
As they get older I will adapt the wording and examples to reflect their level of cognition. Always reinforcing that it is okay for them to feel different. This is similar to how I talk with their sisters who are five and seven. I sat down with the girls while the autistic twins played. The boys were lining up their sisters’ dolls and their cars in a row at the time. I asked my daughters if they had heard about autism. After establishing a clear understanding of what autism is, I let the girls know that the twins had autism. Their older sister understood immediately and she had some questions. That makes it easy because when you hear the question they are asking it makes it clear what they can or can’t understand. The five-year-old wasn’t sure still. I used a new toy analogy with her. Explaining how when we get a new toy, it can be so exciting that our brain just thinks about the new toy all the time, even if we walk away from it we’re still thinking about it. Sometimes, a person with autism can get stuck like that too. They might have a really hard time getting un-stuck. That made sense to my younger daughter. I explained that sometimes the boys can get really mad, or really sad when their brain gets stuck but that it’s okay because we are practicing ways to get unstuck too. My oldest daughter ran with that. She did really well playing with them and when they got upset she would help the boys get their blanket and go for a reset break. It was really sweet.
Having watched all of this play out really illustrated to me how teaching kids about autism in a way that they understand leads to an almost instinctual acceptance. When kids are taught that it’s different but it’s okay, then it doesn’t seem weird. When the idea of autistic behavior is normalized by connecting it to emotions or feelings neurotypicals have then there is nothing left to tease about. I’m probably looking through a bit of a rose-colored lens. In my experience having their autism be something that you talk with them about throughout their childhood will help them to know that different is okay.
Trapper Shafer is an adult with autism and the father to five wonderful children, of whom 2 are autistic as well. He is also the founder of UNPUZLD, a clothing brand promoting autism acceptance and supporting autism by donating 50% of all profits back to various autism foundations. If you are interested in learning more about Trapper and his work, you can visit his website here: https://unpuzld.wordpress.com
Dr. Jessica Myszak has had over 11 years of experience performing psychological evaluations with children and adults. She offers both in-person and telehealth evaluations. In addition to seeing clients on the Chicago North Shore, she is able to work with families who reside in Arizona, Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Missouri, Nebraska, New Hampshire, Nevada, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and North Carolina, Washington DC, Wisconsin, and soon, Alabama and Kentucky! If you are interested in learning more about potentially working with her, you can visit her website here or email her here to get the process started.