How can I explain autism to young children?

Explaining autism to young children is a challenge. This is the clearest explanation I've ever heard. Oddly, it involves toasters and hair dryers.

As a parent of a child with autism, as well as two typical children, I have thought a great deal about how to explain autism to other children. Understanding is a crucial first step to acceptance. Fortunately, one mom out there in the blogosphere has done the hard work for me.

MOM-NOS is a blogger with a fourth-grade son who has autism. She recently had the opportunity to explain her son’s autism to his classmates and went on to write the best series of blog posts I have ever read about how to explain autism to young children. This series not only highlights MOM-NOS’ incredible grasp of autism spectrum disorders, but also how wonderful and perceptive typical peers can be. I cannot recommend enough that you click these links and read the posts. If you are interested in autism, I don’t think you will be sorry.

She began by asking the children to imagine that most people in the world are toasters, but that people with autism are hair dryers. Both toasters and hair dryers are wonderful and important, but hair dryers have a difficult time making toast.

Her next subject was echolalia, the repetitive, scripted way of speaking that many autistic people have. I have listened to my own son speak this way for years. Reading MOM-NOS’ explanation for children was eye-opening. She then continued by explaining why he repeated the same thing over and over. It makes so much sense when she likens these repetitive scripts to having a song stuck in your head.

Okay, so now we understand why hair dryer kids speak differently, but why do they need to run in circles and move around so much? Well, have you ever had your leg fall asleep and then had to shake and wiggle to make the feeling go away? Well, what if your whole body felt that way because your senses are so differently attuned and then someone came along and asked you to do math? By the end of this post, you will understand why kids with autism might need extra time to move around. And you might have done a little wiggling and grooving yourself.

Sensory issues are extremely common in people with autism. I have watched my son, as well as other kids with autism, react to noise by covering their ears. Sometimes they even react to the possibility of noise by covering their ears. Read how MOM-NOS made the children understand by equating this type of behavior to what a toaster kid would do in a scary movie.

My son is very attached to me. So is MOM-NOS’ son. (Well, he is attached to her.) My son has bonded very strongly with his aides. It wasn’t until I read MOM-NOS’ post explaining how these adults act sort of like translators and guides in an unfamiliar world that I was able to add another layer of comprehension to why my own son clings so tightly to these grown-ups. 

Incredibly, what these children wanted to know about next was how to be a better friend to this child. They wanted to know how to be people that her son would want to hang out with. The beauty and love that these fourth- graders possess and wanted to be able to share is phenomenal. MOM-NOS was able to tell them how to find her son’s interests and use them to talk with him, as well as offering some pointers on how to give her son some extra time to process this talk and respond.

But will her son always be this way, the children wanted to know? Yes, she told them, he will always be a hair dryer, but he will grow and find new ways to make toast with his hair dryer, just as the typical kids will grow and find new ways to do things.

The kids also wondered if MOM-NOS’ son knows he is different. I have told my own son that he is autistic. I want it to be a word that is around him so he is not surprised by it one day when he is old enough to really understand what it means. In her next post, MOM-NOS explained that maybe the fact that autistic children are different isn’t the important point to make. The crucial point is that we are all different in our own way, and that the important thing is to be happy about it.

The next entry is this series is incredible and powerful. MOM-NOS told the kids the way they can help is by embracing differences, their own as well as others’. Create a community where it is okay to be unique. “Take it with you for the rest of your life,” she told them. It won’t just help people with autism—it will help everyone.

This is a lot of information to process, especially if you are a fourth-grader. Did these kids really learn anything? Do they understand autism and MOM-NOS’ son better? Read her final post to discover the wonderful comments and thoughts these young students had after their conversation.

These posts should be published in a book and handed out to every teacher in America. I will be passing them along to my son’s teachers. As I said at the top, acceptance comes with understanding. I think we are fortunate that there are writers, parents and educators who are putting out this information for all of us to learn from.

Jean blogs about her life at Stimeyland and runs an autism events website for Montgomery County, Maryland at AutMont. She would like to thank MOM-NOS for graciously allowing her to write this post and link to her amazing words.


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Jean Winegardner

When Jean had her first child in 2001, "autism" was about the scariest word she could think of. Six years later when her second child was diagnosed with PDD-NOS, a form of autism, she was just happy to have a word to help him get the services he needed. Her autism journey has been full of tears, laughter, love and at least one attorney.

Jean blogs about her life with her autistic son, Jack, on her blog, Stimeyland. Her two neurotypical children, Sam and Quinn (one older, one younger than Jack), make frequent appearances there as well. Also at Stimeyland? Jean's quirky sense of humor.

She also runs AutMont, an events calendar listing autism-related events in Montgomery County, Maryland.

Raising a child with special needs is hard for so many reasons, but after living with Jack, Jean wouldn't trade him for anything in the world. Come along with Jean as she experiences the joys that come with parenting a special kid.

You can email Jean anytime at stimeyland at gmail dot com or follow her on Twitter, where, as "Stimey," she offers her world view in snippets of 140 characters or less.

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