Parents of multiple children face the challenge of how to teach young kids about autism, particularly when an older sibling exhibits behaviors consistent with this developmental disorder. Information that is given must be age-appropriate and focus, not just on the challenges but, on ways to enhance the family experience by creatively celebrating each child. Self-awareness and the ability to feel empathy for others are characteristics generally needed before a young child is emotionally and cognitively ready to understand the basics of autism. It is never too early, however, to begin modeling kindness for other children who seem “different” and to reshape the idea of “strange” into “special” or “unique.”
A very young child cannot understand that autism is a disorder. Parents, however, can help a preschooler begin to grasp and accept some basic concepts about what it means to have an autistic brother or sister. As he grows, matures, and develops the ability to think abstractly, he will naturally ask questions. Then he is ready to begin to grasp some of the challenges that an autistic child faces. Basic introductory ideas for helping young children learn about autism should involve all of the following:
1. Explaining that although a sibling may not openly smile or laugh when others around him are doing so, that he does have feelings that need to be considered.
The best way to help a small child understand lack of obvious emotion is to tell him that his brother or sister is smiling or laughing on the inside. As a child gets older, this idea can be expanded to include awareness of the challenges that a child with autism faces in connecting to the world around him in the same way that other children can.
2. Helping a preschooler understand that an autistic sibling often has trouble expressing what he is feeling, so he acts it out.
Most small children can grasp the concept of “charades,” of what it means to guess what someone is doing, thinking, or feeling. You can use this game to illustrate the importance of accepting a brother or sister who has emotional outbursts in the absence of language by educating all children in the family to read body language.
It is helpful to explain that this may not be acceptable behavior for children who can easily talk about what they are feeling, but is sometimes the only way an autistic sibling can express himself.
3. Explaining that an autistic sibling sometimes appears not to listen, but this does not mean that he does not care.
Young kids in a family can learn that it is harder for an autistic sibling to focus and hear in the same way that other children do; that he faces the additional challenge of trying to figure out the meaning of what he hears. This helps teach patience and encourages all family members to find creative ways to communicate and connect with an autistic child’s world.
4. Encouraging small children to share an autistic sibling’s world
Toddlers engage in what is called “parallel play.” This means that they enter each others’ worlds in a limited way by sharing the same space and perhaps the same toys without any verbal interaction. They are simply becoming aware of one another. This is a concept that can be applied to helping the older preschooler and elementary-age child join an autistic sibling in an shared activity. Teach him that there is a special way to communicate with a nonverbal child in the family. Encourage him to sit down and play beside an autistic sibling and even follow his example. If an autistic child is drawing, a sibling can sit down and begin to draw too. This can be a meaningful way for both children to share each others’ worlds. Studies show that autistic children can often learn verbal and Nonverbal social cues through parallel play with a normally developing sibling.
5. Perhaps the best way to begin teaching a young child about autism is to help him understand that everyone is different. Stories that have been written to help young children understand autism can be very helpful. It is important to explain that there are all kinds of children. Some are loud and some, quiet. Some talk and others don’t. Teaching small children about autism means helping them to begin to understand that a sibling with autism can be just as smart and very creative; he just has trouble expressing his thoughts and feelings to others.