I hear it all the time… young children asking their moms a question about my son. Why does he talk like a baby? Why he is in a stroller? Why does he have a service dog? Most of the time, the moms quickly hush their child in an attempt to end the questioning, hoping I didn’t hear, quickly moving out of ear shot before their child asks anything more.
I am going to let you in on what may be a revelation to you. I don’t mind your child asking questions about my child. My son doesn’t mind your child asking questions. Not only do we not mind the questions, but we wish you would answer the questions…. Honestly and openly, and with compassion.
Children ask questions because they want to understand. They cannot accept what they do not understand. When you hush their questions, or give them inaccurate answers, you are not sparing me or my son some type of embarrassment, you are however, making it seem like there is something wrong with my son, something so terrible that it should not be discussed in front of him.
I recently had a child ask me if my son was still sick. I was a bit baffled since my son had not recently had any illness. “Mommy said he is sick and might never get better. That is why he acts the way he does.” My heart sank. It was not the first time I had a child say something like this to me and it probably won’t be the last. I am quite certain the mom probably had good intentions when she tried to explain why my son was different, but I wish she would have told him something more accurate. What she had really taught her child was that my son should be pitied and feared. That autism is more than a different way of viewing the world, it is instead a disease that needs to be erradicated.
So let me tell you what I wish you would say…. Mom to Mom.
1) My son has autism. He is different. We know it and so does he. That is ok. He is just as special, just as loved, and just as important as your child is to you. Let your child know that.
2) Please teach your child the word autism. It is not a dirty word. If your child is not exposed the word now in its proper context…. he or she will be taught that word later, by someone else. Someone who might not treat that word with the dignity it deserves. It will not offend me or my son to hear you tell your child that he has autism.
3) Answer whatever question they ask as honestly as you can. My son is different. He doesn’t do things the same way most other children do. He learns differently and he sees the world differently. Sounds come out louder to him. Sometimes what he hears gets mixed up in the processing as it goes to his brain. He might not be able to respond in the way a typical child can.
He can’t talk because his brain processes information differently and sometimes the messages from his brain to his mouth get confused and the message doesn’t go to where it should. He wants to talk. He just can’t. That doesn’t make him any less than your child. It just makes him different.
4) Let your child know that although my son maybe different in some ways, there are a lot of ways he is like your child. He loves his dog. He loves to swing and play in the sandbox. He is reading and learning to write. He hates math, but he loves to learn about snakes and bugs. He really likes to play games on his Ipad, and he never wants to clean up his toys. He gets scared. He gets sad. He gets lonely….. but he loves to laugh. He wants to be accepted. He wants to have friends…. Just like your child does.
5) Tell your child that it is ok to ask him to play. It is ok to talk to him, even if he isn’t able to talk back, he still knows what your child is saying to him. Let them know that they can be friends with him.
6) Tell your child that it is never ok to make fun of anyone for any reason. Tell them their words have the power to change a person’s life… for better or worse. My son was made fun of at church recently. I intervened and stopped the child, but the damage was already done. My son was silent when it happened, but as soon as he walked in the door at home, he started crying and didn’t stop for an hour. He may not have the language to verbally communicate things, but he understood that child’s words perfectly. The old saying of sticks and stones…. It means nothing. Words hurt more.
7) Let your child know that it is ok for someone to be different. The world would be rather boring if we were all the same. Teach them by example to accept those who are different, whether it is from autism or something else in their lives. If you ignore my son, so will they. If you treat him as though he is less than, so will they. If however, you respect my son (and others with differences), if you treat him kindly, so will they.
8) Finally, if you don’t know the answer to your child’s question, I wish you would just tell them you don’t know, take the time to find out the answer, or ask. Making up an answer doesn’t help anyone.
My son attends Sunday School with a group of kids ages 3-7. Almost every Sunday, there is one little boy in particular, who asks me a question about my son. Why does he jump up and down? Why does he cover his ears? Why don’t I understand what he says? They are genuine and sincere questions from a child who wants to understand why my son is different. His questions have never bothered me. I answer them honestly and as simply as I can each time he asks. He melts my heart as he sits and listens to every word I say. I know he is taking it all in. A few weeks ago, my son said something to this little boy. The little boy’s face lit up with excitement. “Did you hear him? He talked to me! He can talk and I can understand him!!!!!” Not only did he tell me this, but he had to go around and tell each of his classmates and the other teacher in the room. The little boy had wanted to understand, he questioned, he listened, he learned. He had learned to not only treat my son with compassion and respect, but he had learned to rejoice in my son’s progress. I wish each of you would teach your child the same.