Many of us have found ourselves being questioned by our children when they see someone with a physical disability (often VERY loudly and right in front of them). But not all disabilities are visible, and these can create even more questions. We are hugely grateful to Lizzie for giving us this invaluable advice on how to talk to your child when they see and question Autistic behaviours.
Lizzie is a Yorkshire journalist and mum to two boys age 8 and 5 who have learning difficulties and hypermobility. The eldest also has an autism diagnosis. She shares ideas for holidays and days out for parents of children on the spectrum on her blog www.acuriousjourney.com as well as Facebook and Instagram.
Most of us will have experienced that awkward moment in a supermarket or similar when you’re out and about and your child blurts out “mummy, why is that boy flapping his hands so much?” or “why isn’t that girl (in a wheelchair) standing up?” within earshot of the person they’re talking about.
You probably feel like crawling under a rock.
The world of special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) is a tricky one to navigate, particularly if you’re not living in it. You don’t want to offend but you don’t know what to say, so you ignore/move away from the situation, say nothing and hope it all goes away. So very British.
But us parents have an obligation to have regular “everybody’s different” chats. We need to teach our children to accept differences in the world and talk about why we should make lots of different types of friends – not just people who look, act and think like us.
Funnily enough, it’s not just neurotypical children who need those conversations. Children with additional needs can be just as likely to point out differences at the tops of their voices. Some of the questions my children have asked me when we’re out and about are:
“Mummy, why’s that boy staring?”
“Why is that girl not walking?”
And my favourite from my incredibly loud eldest child: “Why is he making so much noise, mummy?”
While comments like these can be embarrassing for us parents, one thing you shouldn’t do is cut off the conversation. This is unintentionally showing children that differences are something that shouldn’t be talked about because they are weird or bad.
It becomes a little trickier when you’re dealing with hidden disabilities, like autism. You might not know a child is autistic unless you’re told so but they may display behaviours that your child finds unusual and wants to ask questions about.
Don’t dampen their curiosity. It’s a good thing they are asking questions because it means they want to learn more – even if their question makes you cringe. You might not have all the answers for your child but teaching them to be caring and compassionate is the best place to start.
Here are 3 common autism behaviours you might encounter when you’re out and about and how to talk to your child about them:
It’s not always obvious why a child is screaming uncontrollably in the supermarket aisle or lying in a purple-faced rage on the floor in the queue for a theme park ride. But autistic children (and adults) experience the world very differently to neurotypical people and can experience sensory overload from certain smells, noise and crowded areas. This can be easily triggered when they’re out and about – resulting in a meltdown. A meltdown is very different to a tantrum and is defined as an intense reaction to sensory overwhelm. While children having a tantrum are still in control of their behaviour, a meltdown is a complete loss of control. It can involve emotional verbal outbursts such as screaming and crying or physical reactions like kicking, biting or hitting.
TIP: If your child witnesses a meltdown of a child they don’t know, explain that life can be overwhelming and confusing for some children and they sometimes get very upset or frightened. If it’s a child they do know, you can add that the best thing is to wait for them to calm down and be kind to them when they feel better.
Stimming – self-stimulatory behaviour – is a repetitive behaviour like hand flapping, rocking or spinning. It can occur due to overstimulation, understimulation or to self regulate emotions. It might look a little strange to people who aren’t used to it but it’s a vital part of coping with sensory issues and stress for many autistic children.
TIP: If your child sees another child engaging in a repetitive activity in this way, explain to them that the other child might be doing that to make themselves feel happy. Compare it to something your child does to make them feel happy so they can understand why it might not be so unusual after all.
Communication can be a tricky area for autistic children. Some children are non verbal, while others appear to talk non-stop. However, children (and adults) on the spectrum sometimes have trouble with the rules of interaction that most people learn automatically. They might ignore other children or talk to them but give an inappropriate or odd response. They might play in a different way to neurotypical children, such as enjoying repetitive behaviour or not engaging in imaginative play. They may also struggle to manage their emotions if they become frustrated.
TIP: If your child is confused by the communication or unusual play of a child, explain that we all talk and play differently and that’s ok. Some children might take a long time to answer or not answer at all. Some children might not want to play the game your child made up. That doesn’t mean they don’t like your child, they just might not quite understand what they mean. Encourage your child to join in a game the other child wants to play if they’re both happy with that. They could also ask about something the other child is interested in to engage them in a conversation. Above all, encourage kindness.
Talking about additional needs at home is a good place to start. You can find lots of great books which help to start the conversation about different needs and disabilities. A great one for autism is He’s Not Naughty! A Children’s Guide to Autism, by Deborah Brownson. This helps children to concentrate on making friends and finding things in common rather than focusing on the differences.
For holiday and days out ideas and tips, visit my blog. I help parents of children on the autistic spectrum with inspiration for their next family break so that everyone feels confident to try new things and they can enjoy their time together. You can also find me on Facebook or on Instagram.