I have a friend who only calls when he has a question about something. Normally it’s about triathlon or swimming, which is cool, he is an old friend and every time I hear his voice it makes me happy.
Last week the phone rang and again he said “can I ask you a question?” This time it wasn’t about running or cigars or bacon, it was advice on how to talk to a child with autism.
Being a parent of a child with autism, my guard went up and I could feel that hot anger brewing inside of me as he began to speak.
“ We are headed out of town with another family and their son is autistic. I want to make sure I don’t offend his parents or make the boy uncomfortable, so I was hoping you could help me out?”
Before I could angrily answer, he continued, “ I have been scouring the internet reading blog posts and they are all so angry” Don’t say I’m sorry, don’t do this, don’t say that,” but none of them really give me great advice on what to do or say. Which is why I called you.”
Damn him! He once again was right. His intention was as pure and sincere as could be and he was generally right. There is a lot out there on what not to say, or what parents wish people would do when they are with their children, but not a lot of “here’s the deal,” type of advice.
My blood pressure dropped, I sat in a chair and I began to share with my friend. “Here’s the deal.”
- If you meet one person with autism you have met one person with autism. That’s why they call it a spectrum. It’s a wide range, so never try to pigeon hole one person, but here are somethings that will help you.
- Don’t be sorry, don’t say I’m sorry. That child is a blessing to his parents, they love him and enjoy him as much as you enjoy your kids. Trust me my son has taught me more about life, love, patience and how to take a deep breath than any three psychologists combined.
- When you meet the boy, say “Hi (name here) nice to meet you, just like you would with any other kid. If he doesn’t make eye contact, or even answer don’t get upset or think his parents suck, it’s just the way things are. If you accept that and move on, it will leave a positive ripple effect on the boy and the parents.
- Include the boy on conversations. Again, he may never respond or may respond and not look at you, but he does hear you and pretty much everything that is going on, it registers, so don’t be afraid to say, “wasn’t that a great hot dog,” “ how did you like the ice cream?” “isn’t that funny?” Inclusion to a child, any child and their parents is an amazing gift.
- If you’re in charge of a meal, ask his parents “what does he like to eat?” It seems silly, why wouldn’t he want fried chicken? A lot of kids on the spectrum have food sensitivities and there are certain things they do and don’t eat. It’s different than the crunchy yoga mom who insists that her son only eats free range kale bought from shamans in Napal and cooked with breast milk. Food can be a trigger for kids on the spectrum , it’s not your cooking so chill and don’t get offended. The simple act of asking his parents will again make them feel calm, included and show you care.
- If things go “south.” Kids on the spectrum can get over stimulated or “stim.” That’s the yelling and rocking that many people associate with autism. What to do: Ask if you can help in any way? If not simply say as you get up and walk away “I’m going to give you all a little time.” Help and time are things that all parents need. When a child with autism starts to stim, the natural reaction is to jump in and do “something, anything,” it can be uncomfortable to be around. Trust me, it ain’t easy for the parents and for the child something has over stimulated him. Calm and understanding is the best thing you can offer up.
- My buddy likes to talk so I offered this up. Instead of saying “I’m sorry,” which seems natural but trust me it hurts to hear. If you feel like you have to say something ask “how’s it going?” As a parent, I love to share the progress my son has made from eye contact to asking for a chocolate donut. I share that news like the soccer dad shares stories of his daughter scoring a goal. It fills me with pride and hope.
That was about the end of the conversation. My buddy, who always asks for something thanked me and was off to his weekend. I felt better sharing things that I have wanted to share with someone who truly wanted to learn.