My family lives in a beautiful community nestled between a river and farmland. Life here is relatively quiet. Kids run freely through the neighborhood. My son is autistic, and the kids are relatively patient with my son. However, there have been times his behavior or reactions have scared the kids. Yesterday after an incident where my son lost his temper, I realized it was time to talk to the kids about autism and my son’s health conditions.
Before I share my conversation with the kids, I think it’s appropriate to share background on my son. My son has Level 1 Autism Spectrum Disorder. Until recently psychologists referred to Level 1 as Aspergers Syndrome. Children with Level 1 Autism are verbal, are not cognitively impaired, and can “appear” to blend in. My son struggles most with social interaction and rigid thinking.
We often think of my son’s Autism as a gift. His memory is a steel trap. If he is interested in a topic, he knows more about it than anyone else. He’s enthusiastic about his interests. I love watching him learn and explore.
Autistic adults that I’ve met call topics they are interested in “Special Interests.” My son’s special interest is Dinosaurs. We have a million dinosaurs in our home. He watches every show made about dinosaurs. We even structure learning around dinosaurs to keep him interested.
Despite the fantastic gifts, Autism provides my son; there are also challenges we face. He struggles to understand social queues like a person’s tone of voice and body language. We have worked hard with him to interpret facial expressions like happy, sad, mad, frightened, and scared.
Additionally, he has rigid and literal thinking. When my son wants to do something, nothing can change his mind. If he is unable to achieve that goal, he becomes frustrated, disruptive, and violent. These are the reactions that can scare other children, and make it difficult for him to have friends.
Now let’s return to what happened yesterday.
My son was outside and wanted to play with the little girl next door. The little girl wanted to play with her older sister. She refused to come over. My son fixated on wanting to play with the girl. Her refusal to play sent him into an aggressive rage. He screamed, stomped his feet, threw himself against the fence, and cried uncontrollably.
I watched the girls get scared. They walked away.
My son was about to enter into a meltdown, and I knew I needed to help him calm down. I picked him up and carried him into the house. He cried uncontrollably inside, and I gave him deep compression hugs to calm his nerves. After I got him calm, I laid him on the couch to relax with his Ipad.
Instantly, I knew I needed to talk to the girls outside. What they witnessed was scary for a child to see. I didn’t want the girls to be scared of my son, and I knew I needed to talk to them about his disabilities.
Without a ton of thought, I flew out the door and walked to the girls. Based on the looks on their face, I knew they were having a tough time processing what happened. I approached them and let them know we need to talk about what happened.
The five girls all nodded their heads.
I asked them, “Do you know what a disability is?”
Looking at them with compassion, I told them, my son, been born with a brain that had parts of it that didn’t work right (hydrocephalus). I explained that he had a disease that made his brain have too much water inside. The girls looked at me with sadness.
I explained that because of the way his brain formed, it makes it hard for him to communicate and understand the world. They nodded their heads.
One of the girls said, “My cousin has Autism.”
I looked at her and said, “He has Autism too.”
When she made the connection to her cousin and my son, I saw a light bulb go off on her head. She told the other girls about how her cousin likes to swing. If she wants to play with her cousin, he will refuse to do anything other than swing.
Her story helped me explain to the girls how my son’s fixation and rigid thinking can make social interactions challenging.
I told them, “When he gets his mind set on something there is no changing his mind. Today he wanted to play with you guys. When you said no, he could not adapt to that answer. He didn’t know how to handle the response and he started crying and yelling.”
I asked them if they were scared. All of the girls nodded their heads. I told them it is ok to feel scared when he acts out. However, I reminded them of the importance of knowing that he doesn’t mean to scare them. I shared that no matter how he reacts it is ok for them to tell him no. Even if he responds violently, it doesn’t mean they have to play with him. All of them sighed relief.
After I explained the difference in how he thinks, all of the girls started talking about the attributes they like about my son. They noted his love for dinosaurs and how much he knew about them. One of the girls called him kind. Another girl referred to him as loving. Each of them shared stories about their positive interactions with my son.
We then talked about how every person has something that makes them different. Then we talked about various diseases and disabilities kids face. All of them shared stories of kids they know that had differences. When we finished, I let them know that even if someone isn’t like them, it doesn’t mean they are weird or mean. I emphasized that we need to be kind to everyone no matter the obstacles they face. Each of the girls nodded and agreed.
I also told them never to feel like they have to handle his outbursts, and they can always come to me first. Finally, I made sure they understood they can always ask me questions about Autism.
After I left the girls, they were smiling. I could tell they understood why my son had acted out so violently. They all promised they would be his friend and accept his differences. As a mother, I felt relieved with our conversation.
Yesterday I learned a powerful lesson about Disability and Autism. If I want people to accept my son, I have to advocate for him. Advocating for him means that I might have to have tough conversations with children. However, I’m willing to take the time to help others understand. Every child deserves to have friends. As a parent of a child on the spectrum, my job is to help others understand his differences.
I will educate as many children as I need if it means my son can have friends.