Disabilities can be difficult for parents to explain to young children, but it doesn’t have to be. In this Daniel Tiger episode, a new child enters Daniel’s class, but Daniel is confused by the braces the girl uses to walk. The girl simply explains that she needs them to walk because of an unspecified disability. The children begin to talk about other ways they are different with a positive spin, pointing out that Prince Wednesday has glasses to help him see and Daniel has a tail unlike the other children. This episode makes it easy for children to understand that as Daniel says, “We are more alike than different”. And that it is okay to have differences, that is what makes everyone so interesting!
While working with children diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder, I have had the chance to befriend quiet a few amazing parents. During conversations with these parents, they have voiced a few phrases people commonly use when talking about their child that can be hurtful. These comments usually come from a place of curiosity and love, so here are a few ways that they could be rephrased.
1. “I don’t know how you do it”
This is probably the most common complaint I have heard from parents. The reason for this is that the parent does not have a choice, plus this comment makes it seem like being a parent to their child is aversive and unenjoyable. They love and support their child just as any parent would.
What you could say: “You are such a great Mom/Dad.”
2. “My sister-in-law’s neighbor’s child has Autism and they tried ___ treatment.”
When people hear a parent say their child has Autism, they want to be able to relate to them in some way, so this comment is completely understandable. However, individuals on the Autism Spectrum are just like anyone else in that no two people are alike. Even though your sister-in-law’s neighbor’s child tried ___ treatment, it does not mean it will work for every child.
What you could say: “Tell me more about your son/daughter.”
3. “Let me know if you need anything”
I have said this myself quite a few times because I truthfully mean I will give support in any way the family may need it but am unsure how to help. The reason this phrase is harmful is that this puts a lot of pressure on the parent. No parent ever wants to ask for help with their own child and they certainly do not want to be a burden.
What you could say: “I would love to babysit and spend some time with ____” or “How can I support you?”
4. “What is wrong with your child?”
The fault in this comment seems inherently obvious, nothing is “wrong” with an individual with Autism. It may be considered a disability, but individuals with Autism are just a different Neurotype and Neuro diversity makes the world interesting.
What you could say: Nothing, if a parent wants to share their child’s diagnosis with you, let them do it when they feel comfortable.
5. “Are they high or low functioning?”
The person saying this comment really just wants to learn more about the child. The issue with the labels “high” and “low” functioning is that they tell you NOTHING about the individual. A great example is, what if an individual is extremely intelligent, but is non-verbal. Are they high or low functioning?
What you could say: “What are their strengths/challenges?
6. “But they seem so normal.”
This is meant to be a compliment, but for a person with Autism their behaviors are constantly being changed so they can appear normal. And appearing normal can be extremely exhausting to an individual with Autism because social norms like eye contact can be challenging. And what is normal anyway?
What you could say: “___ is so bright” or “I love talking to ___”
Hopefully these tips help!
According to the dictionary, normal is “conforming to a standard; usual, typical, or expected”.
Being in the field of psychology, we are exhaustively taught about abnormal behaviors. Unfortunately, the word abnormal comes with a negative stigma. But what is so bad about being abnormal? Many household names were considered “abnormal” during their life. Galileo’s work in physics was under appreciated, Henry David Thoreau was thought to be obscure, and Edgar Allan Poe could not sell any of his work. These names have made being “abnormal” more acceptable for typically developing individuals, but for some reason we hold individuals on the Autism Spectrum to a different set of standards.
Think of an abnormal, perhaps self-stimulatory behavior that you exhibit. We all have them, whether it be twirling our hair or bouncing our leg. Now think about if people were constantly staring at you for it, pointing it out to you and punishing you for it. I know as someone that bounces their leg, if anyone points out my leg bouncing I become hyper-aware of my behavior which causes me to be self conscious, anxious and distracted. So why do we do this to individuals with Autism?
Instead of teaching individuals with Autism to conform to society’s standards and stop their “abnormal” behaviors, we need to encourage acceptance. I know many professionals will disagree with my stance and I have even been taught to discourage stim behaviors during my studies. However, I think the problem is not with one’s stimming, but with our disgust of such a natural human behavior. If someone was constantly punishing me for my leg shaking behavior, this would be considered bullying.
Don’t get me wrong, some stimming can be destructive, such as self injurious behaviors or ones that severely inhibit daily functioning. But if a child or adult’s behavior is not hurting anyone, I don't think it is our place to tell them to stop. These behaviors are used to self regulate whether it be emotional, sensory or other. By taking away this positive stimulation for the individual, it is making the negative stimulation they were trying to avoid even worse and telling them that they should be ashamed of their natural behavior. Which could possibly breed another psychological issue like anxiety.
Maybe you disagree, but I urge you to try to think openly.