The Right Way My Son With Autism Can Help Educate Your Children

“I’m so glad you know how to behave in public,” you whisper to your child.

Only it’s not always a whisper. We hear you loud and clear. And even if we don’t hear your words, your disapproving glances convey the message.

Evan, my 9-year-old son, has autism. Until he has a meltdown, he doesn’t look any different than his typical developing peers. But then, he looks more like an out-of-control toddler than a third-grade school boy.

It’s the worst when parents use Evan’s meltdown as an opportunity to show their child how not to behave, or to reinforce their child’s exemplary behavior. While your intentions may be good, there’s a better, non-judgmental way to teach.

Instead of comparing behavior, ask your children why they think the other child is acting that way. Then, be open-minded. Maybe the child who’s having a tantrum just got hurt, he’s scared because he thought he lost his mom or any number of alternative explanations. While this may not be the reason for the child’s meltdown, at least you’re teaching your own children they shouldn’t be so quick to judge. Things are not always as they seem.

My son usually isn’t upset because I won’t let him have a cookie or because it’s time to leave the playground. It’s more likely he’s bothered by a sight, sound or smell that you or I barely notice. But to him, it’s an all-out assault on his nervous system.

Almost anything can set off a child with autism, from the sound of a fly buzzing to the smell of a banana. Some kids are bothered by the slightest change in routine. I know a girl who insists on always using a particular door to enter her school. If that door happens to be locked, she screams, cries and refuses to go through another door. Without knowing the whole story, a passerby can come to any number of incorrect conclusions.

If your child asks a question, answer it to the best of your ability. Your kids are curious and that’s a good thing. They aren’t judging. They don’t mean any harm. They are questioning something new. By avoiding their questions you’re actually showing them something is wrong. Instead, use this as an opportunity to educate your children. Often, a simple explanation will suffice.

And if can’t answer your children’s questions, it’s OK. We don’t expect you to have all the answers.

Even better, start a dialogue. You could say something like, “Hi, my name is Jen and this is my daughter Jessica. She just asked me about your son’s flapping.” By doing so, you are not asking a direct question, but instead starting a conversation and allowing the parent to respond in a way that is most comfortable for them. If you don’t want to approach them, you could say, “He was born that way, just like James was born with autism or Nathan was born with allergies.” Then you could add something your children can relate to, like, “I wonder if he likes to play with Legos, too.” This way, when your children meets someone with a disability or someone who looks different, they are less likely to be afraid.

So please, next time you see a child with “bad” behavior or physical differences, it’s OK to use him or her as a teaching tool. Just do it the right way.

young boy with glasses on the beach

A version of this post originally appeared on Special Ev

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