Since my son was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder, one of my biggest worries has been how he would be perceived and treated by his peers as he grew up in our neurodiverse world.
Although I love his unique way of seeing the world, I’m also aware that his social challenges make his daily life a struggle. At home, my husband and I encourage him to pursue his unique passions while providing the scaffolding of rules, consistency, and order that make him feel safe. But sometimes, a quiet dread fills me as I imagine his future.
We live in a world of complexity and nuance, and nowhere is that more evident than in the social sphere, where autistic kids struggle the most. Social interactions are rarely predictable; they are filled with metaphors, innuendos, subtleties of gesture and tone that neurotypical people take for granted.
To overcome their “mindblindness,” kids like my son, who have milder forms of autism, are encouraged to develop social thinking skills—essentially, how to read body language, imagine other people’s thoughts, anticipate reactions, and control their own.
That can be done through classes, play groups, books, videos, and other tools. And although social interactions will always generally be challenging, given these tools, many autistic kids can adapt to and thrive in their social environments.
For decades, making autistic kids “indistinguishable from their peers” has been the guiding principle behind many therapies and interventions to which autistic kids are exposed. As a parent, I get it.
I don’t want my kid excluded because he hums all the time, or prefers to wear his clothes backwards because they feel better to him, or because he can’t stop talking about his special interests. I also want him to develop genuine, reciprocal relationships with his peers.
And yet, my son’s quirks are a fundamental part of who he is as a human being, so I also believe that my son should be accepted and embraced for who he is.
Although we can be thankful that autistic kids are no longer institutionalized and wholly excluded from participating in mainstream classrooms and environments, they often continue to be segregated in special ed classrooms, and ignored or bullied by peers who don’t have the skills to communicate or develop meaningful relationships with them.
Neurotypical Kids Aren’t Prepared to Live in an Increasingly Neurodiverse World
This is a mistake.
- One in 68 people are on the autism spectrum.
- It’s estimated that 5-10 percent of kids have ADHD.
- Around 10 percent of the population is dyslexic.
Our kids live in a world where they will have friends, teachers, boyfriends, girlfriends, colleagues, bosses and family members who are on the autism spectrum or have any number of other neurodevelopmental disorders. Like other forms of diversity, exposure to neurodiversity is now a given. And yet, neurotypical kids are not prepared to live in an increasingly neurodiverse world.
We need to equip them with tools to understand how autistic people and other non-neurotypicals experience the world, and how to meaningfully include them in their lives. In celebration of Autism Acceptance Month, I’d like to offer a few ways to get started.
Acknowledge difference but emphasize shared humanity
Kids are not the magical color-blind, difference-blind creatures that many people wish they were. Between the ages of 2 and 5, kids start to notice differences in gender, race, and abilities. They also begin reinforcing and shunning deviations from social norms.
The best way to raise accepting and inclusive kids is to acknowledge, talk about, and explain behavior. The behavior of autistic kids, for instance, can range from mildly eccentric—maybe a kid who won’t stop talking about train schedules or outer space, long after the rest of the group has moved on—to more noticeable behaviors, including hand-flapping, rocking back and forth, and meltdowns.
Explain what autism is, acknowledge the behavior and the reasons behind it. For example, hand-flapping, spinning, and other repetitive movements are how many autistic kids self-regulate in response to overwhelming emotions such as excitement or frustration. Talk with your child about how they react to the same emotions.
Do they scream? Jump up and down? Run around? The more kids understand the reasons behind the behaviors, and realize that the expressions are simply different than their own, the the more likely they will be to accept them.
Foster empathy for the differently wired brain
Understanding how my child thinks and experiences his environment is one of the things that has challenged me the most as a parent.
Imagine being dropped into a culture completely different from your own, one that has a radically different sense of humor, expectations around politeness and niceties, how and when to show anger, etc. If you’ve ever had this experience, you know how hard it can be to understand even basic social rules and norms. That’s how autistic people describe their everyday social interactions.
And while my son is working hard at learning “social thinking” skills to enable him to communicate in appropriate ways with his peers, I’m keenly aware that his peers aren’t necessarily learning “autistic thinking” skills to enable them to meet him where he is, too. In a neurodiverse world, it’s important for neurotypical people to understand, to the extent that we are able, how autistic and other non-neurotypical people perceive the world.
Schools and workplaces need to openly acknowledge autism and other neurodevelopmental disorders in the same way that they acknowledge other kinds of difference. We need a neurodiversity curricula to incorporate readings, discussions, and activities to encourage students not only to understand how neurologically diverse brains are wired, but to develop neurodiverse social skills that promote inclusion and acceptance of non-neurotypical kids.
Our kids are learning to think how neurotypicals do. It’s not too much to ask for some reciprocity.
Explain that communication comes in all different forms
Some kids with autism struggle with language acquisition, and some use very little spoken language at all. However, even so-called “non-verbal” autistic kids communicate. In the same way that deaf people use sign language, non-verbal autistic kids rely on gestures, pictures, and typing.
Kids with milder forms of autism tend to think literally, and can’t understand metaphors or wordplay. This can lead to miscommunication and confusion. If your child has an autistic child in his or her classroom, talk with your child’s teacher about how your child and others in the classroom can best communicate with that child. And if your kid has a friend on the spectrum, explain how to communicate with them directly.
Teach that inclusion, while not always easy, is worthwhile
The autistic brain is unique, capable of recognizing patterns and identifying inconsistencies in logic and flaws in data. The highly visual thinking abilities of some autistic kids makes some of them incredible artists and creative problem solvers. Kids with milder forms of autism often become talented engineers, computer programmers, mathematicians, and musicians.
At the same time, few caregivers or autistic people would argue that living with autism is easy. Many autistic people are extremely sensitive to light, sounds, certain smells, textures, and tastes; they are easily overwhelmed by things are unpredictable and unscheduled. All this makes daily life is a veritable minefield, leading to meltdowns.
To be sure, my son often refuses to attend birthday parties because he becomes overwhelmed, and he’s slow to warm up on playdates. He also takes “brain breaks” to read or just tune out. But just like everyone else, my son craves human connection and friendships. He just connects differently, and at his own pace.
If your kid has a friend or sibling on the spectrum, they will undoubtedly experience the highs and lows that come with autism. Teach them that it’s worthwhile to cultivate these relationships—the perspectives and insight they will gain from having an autistic friend or sibling will be unlike any other relationship in their lives.