Talking To Kids About Autism

Olivia never needed an explanation for her little brother’s Autism. It’s just been a part of her life for as long as she can remember. When we started to realize he had significant delays, she was there for it. She witnessed his early issues and lack of speech. It was a part of our home and when it’s just us, it’s the same as any other family. All of our successes and failures are just regular life. We share in them together. She knows nothing different to compare it to.

That’s not the case for her fourth grade friends and I’m conscious of that whenever Lucas is around them. I know that much of his personality that we have come to love might be very strange to people outside our home. It causes me to build defense walls around us and anxiety that someone might say something – anything – aimed to hurt him.

Adults accidentally say insulting things here and there and I have to chalk a lot of it up to social tension. There have been some doozies through the years, but with kids, though, there’s always a bigger concern. They could get frightened by his outbursts or maybe make fun of his delays. I worry more for my daughter than for myself. I hate to think of her being in a position where she has to choose between defending her brother or keeping all her friends. In the mind of a special needs parent, scenarios like this are abundant and always extreme in our imaginations.

buddylukeThat’s why I was pretty nervous this past weekend when I walked Lucas to a town pep rally that Olivia was involved with. Some days, he can be the most adorable and social little boy you could imagine.

This was not one of those days.

He was grumpy, sweaty and genuinely unhappy. When we finally made it to the park, Lucas refused to put down his iPad or even get out of his wagon. My little guy was content where he was and sitting in the bleachers was not on his agenda. So he lounged and I stood on the side of the seating area, next to the trashcan overflowing with bees, and waited patiently for the event to begin. It felt like it never would.

Suddenly, Olivia was standing next to us. Apparently we were waiting near the spot that the kids would be starting from. She ran over, leaned into the wagon, wrapped her arms around Lucas, and offered her usual greeting.

Hi there, Buddy Luke!

I always laugh when she calls him that. I’m not sure where she came up with it, but it’s a nickname she developed on her own. He smiled and placed his hand on her cheek, but still kept his eyes glued to the Sesame Street video on his iPad. Then, I looked around me and, as suddenly as my daughter had appeared, so had around ten of her classmates.

Immediately, they began saying hello to Lucas and trying to see what was on his iPad. Sometimes, he’ll return hellos with a wave. As I mentioned, though, he wasn’t having an overly social day. So he ignored them and Olivia began to explain.

He doesn’t talk. Kelly, he’s older than your sister and doesn’t talk.

She didn’t say it in a mean way. It was in a way that implied that she thought it was an interesting factoid. I wanted to pause time, pull Olivia aside, and enlighten her about perception. I could hear my own voice in my head saying, “People might think we’re making fun or that it’s something to be ashamed of.” After all, those are the life lessons I’ve learned through the years. She should know. People can be mean. As the ongoing fear-the-world narrative continued on in my head, the world I was fearing was still going on around me.

Kelly’s mouth hung wide open with shock.

He doesn’t talk? Nothing? He doesn’t say anything?

I smiled and approached the whole situation as Mr. Rogers-like as I could. I pulled all the walls down and spoke to them as plainly as possible. I wasn’t hiding anything about who he is.

Nope. We tell each other things with our hands or with his iPad. But no, he has Autism. He doesn’t talk yet.

Does he walk?

Before I could answer, another kid in the audience we had attracted like bees to a trash can did.

Of course! He runs.

Kelly’s face grew more astonished.

He runs?!

I nodded.

Yup. Sometimes I take him to the school yard and we race.

Does he win?

No, I win.

At this point, one of Olivia’s friends squinted her little eyes at me and offered this opinion on the whole situation.

I bet I could beat you in a race.

Yeah, I bet you can.

We kept talking for a bit about what he does and doesn’t do. I was as open as I could possibly be and answered every question they presented. By the time the kids ran off to get in line, Kelly was still talking about Lucas. Her questions had been very direct and she examined every move he made. I was worried that she thought he was strange. I worried that Olivia would find herself battling her friend about it. I worried about a lot of stuff.

After the rally, Olivia had a playdate, so I didn’t see her until the evening. While she was gone, I began to construct a whole conversation to help her deal with the judgmental people she may have dealt with during the day. I wanted her to understand that even though the kids might have said mean things after they walked away, there were ways to handle it. She needed to realize that people fear what they don’t know. I had a whole presentation planned out. Anecdotes, stories, metaphors – you name it. It was going to be very educational.

She came home shortly before dinner. Before I had a chance to enlighten her about the evil world around her, she ran into my office, plopped onto the couch, and gave me, what she considered to be, the top story of the day.

Daddy. My friends think Lucas is soooooo….

That “so” lasted an hour in my head. I began to freak out about what would be said next. It could have been anything. I wasn’t prepared for it when she said it.


She was beaming with pride. I was stunned and didn’t know what to say.

Kelly wants to race him. I’m hungry. Can I watch a show?

I nodded and put my mental presentation away. I could always educate her on the judgmental evils of the world on another day. As for today, it was her and a group of fourth grade girls who reminded me that it’s not always as judgmental and evil as we imagine.