6 Gentle Ways to Help Parents Recognize Their Child's Autism

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After spending some quality time with someone else's child -- and doing due diligence to be sure you really understand that children develop at many different speeds -- you're pretty sure the child is exhibiting signs of autism. The child's parents don't seem to have a clue. In fact, they see their child's repetitive and sensory-seeking behaviors as "cute." 

You decide you need to say something.  But what?

Here are some gentle ways to suggest that parents might want to consider the possibility that their wonderful, smart, loving child might also happen to be autistic.

  1. Ask Open-Ended Questions.  Parents sometimes discover their child's differences when they explore think carefully about their own observations. To help parents to do this, you can ask open-ended questions such as "Is Jamie very different from your older children/his peers at this age?" or "What kind of games does Jill enjoy playing with you?"  As parents consider their answers, they may discover that, indeed, Jamie is way behind his typical peers' developmental progress, or that Jill really doesn't enjoy playing anything with them at all.
  2. Make Non-Judgmental Observations.  It's very hard for parents to hear negative judgments about their children. A statement like "Billy should be talking by now" is likely to end a conversation quickly. But non-judgmental observations can help to open their eyes. For example, when watching a child cover their ears for the 10th time in an hour, you might simply note "I see Carly is very sensitive to any kind of loud sound; is she sensitive to bright lights as well?"
  1. Talk About Your Own Experience. Rather than suggesting that someone's child is probably diagnosable with a developmental disorder, you might want to describe your own experiences. This will give parents something to think about without having to defend their own child's behavior (or their own actions). For example: "My friend's child wasn't really using words at age four, so they took him to a developmental pediatrician. Now he's going to a speech therapist and doing really well."
  2. Offer Resources. If you're familiar with autism, chances are you know where to find reliable information, good doctors and therapists, support groups, and more.  Rather than telling parents "You should have your child evaluated," consider just letting them know that you can offer them resources when they're ready.  For example: "I know you're a little concerned about Sam's development; if you decide you want an expert opinion, I can give you the names of a terrific developmental neurologist."
  3. Mention Positive Aspects of Autism.  Some parents become paralyzed when faced with the possibility that their child might be "damaged."  As a result, they don't pursue diagnosis or treatment -- and as a result of THAT their child loses the opportunity for early intervention and therapy. Sometimes, the paralysis is based on misunderstandings about autism. In that case, you might want to describe a situation in which a child diagnosed with autism succeeded in achieving a significant goal. For example, "My nephew is autistic, but that hasn't slowed him down: he's one of the best players in the high school chess team!"
  1. Reinforce the Fact that Parents Are Not to Blame for Autism. Back in the day, mothers were blamed for their children's autism and were called "refrigerator mothers." While that idea has happily been debunked, parents often still believe that something they did (or didn't do) caused their child's developmental delays. It can be helpful to reassure parents that their child's delays are not their fault -- and that early intervention can make a real and positive difference.
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