Article originally published on Psychology Today.
Why, when, and how to tell your children that they are on the spectrum.
by Christopher Lynch, Ph.D., author of "Totally Chill: My Complete Guide To Staying Cool".
As a child psychologist working in the field of autism, I often get asked by parents whether or not they should tell their children about their diagnosis. My answer is almost always an emphatic, “Yes.”
Why should I tell my child that he is on the spectrum?
Diagnostic awareness can be helpful for children in a number of ways, including:
A diagnosis counters a negative self-image. Over time, a child on the spectrum may interpret her challenges as a sign that she is deficient in some way. A diagnosis helps a child to know that there is nothing inherently “wrong” or “bad” about her. In addition, a diagnosis (when explained holistically) can help a child to balance awareness of needs with an awareness of strengths.
The earlier, the better. However, there are some factors to consider about exactly when. Age is one of those factors. Ideally, a child should be able to process the concept of a diagnosis and the key information surrounding it. If your child is not yet ready for the full discussion, you can still talk about the challenges he is facing, but leave out the diagnostic terms.
Fortunately for us, a child usually lets us know when it’s time. Questions inevitably arise, and the child may begin to express feelings of being different without knowing why. These questions and statements provide the perfect opportunity to start the conversation.
How should I explain the diagnosis?
There is no universal script for revealing a diagnosis of autism to a child. The words used have to be the parent’s own and will vary from situation to situation. However, there are some valuable concepts to cover that can help make the experience empowering, including:
Autism is a diverse condition. Autism affects people in many different ways, and no two people are impacted in exactly the same way. Knowing this will help a child to keep a sense of individual identity and will prevent him from making prejudgments about how his autism “should be.”
Autism is an important part of who you are, but it is not the only part of who you are. No person should be fully defined by a diagnosis. Your child can learn that there are many aspects to who she is as a person and that many of these aspects exist outside of her autism.
Autism has its strengths. Although autism comes with its challenges, it also comes with a set of strengths, including persistence, memory, attention to detail, and genuineness. Presenting this balanced view of autism will help your child to develop resilience.
It is important to address any concerns that a parent may have about sharing the diagnosis. Here are my responses to three common concerns.
“Won’t My Child Use the Diagnosis as an Excuse?”
Possibly. Children may try to avoid consequences for behavior, even if it means blaming the diagnosis. However, when it comes to autism, many behaviors are unintentional and really are due to autism (especially autism-related anxiety and frustration). Although a child may try to pin more intentional behaviors on autism, I find that the use of this excuse doesn’t last very long if it is not reinforced.
Opinions vary on this topic, ranging from “no one needs to know unless they absolutely have to” to “I don’t care if the whole world knows.” Although we would never want a child to feel shame because of a diagnosis, parents can discuss the pros and cons of telling particular classes of people (e.g., telling all children in general vs. telling close friends, telling family members vs. telling strangers, etc.) Over time, children will learn what works best for their situation.
“Knowing the Diagnosis Is Going to Limit My Child.”
In some ways, not knowing the diagnosis has more potential to limit your child. When your child does not know what is driving challenges in life, it becomes difficult to face and overcome those challenges. By knowing the diagnosis, your child can begin to develop targeted strategies for overcoming adversity.
- Conversations about a diagnosis can be helpful for autistic children in a number of ways.
- Children often let us know when it’s time to start the conversation by the questions they ask and the concerns they raise.
- Explaining the diagnosis in an open, honest, and balanced way can help to make the conversation an empowering experience.