After your child receives an autism diagnosis, you probably have many questions. Among them is likely whether you should tell your child they are autistic and how to share this news.
Some parents are concerned that if their child knows they are autistic they may suffer from low self-esteem or feel they won’t be able to reach some of their goals. Other parents worry about their child feeling “different.” Some parents want to tell their child about their diagnosis but don’t know how.
Jacquelyn Flood, Psy.D., clinical director of psychology for Elemy, shares her thoughts on why it’s important to share a diagnosis with your child and how to tell them.
Why It’s Important to Tell Your Child They Are Autistic
Although some parents worry about how their child will react when they find out they are autistic, according to Dr. Flood it is important that autistic children know about their diagnosis. This is because it is healthy for all children to understand themselves and how to navigate the world successfully. For children with autism, this means learning about what it means to be autistic and how to navigate the world with their unique abilities.
Chances are your child already feels different than their peers. Understanding why comes as a relief for many children. Dr. Flood believes that it is important for every child to understand that all people are different and that being different is okay and even something to celebrate.
These are just a few other ways talking to your child about their autism diagnosis can be beneficial.
Children Who Know They Are Autistic Can Open Up and Ask Questions
Once children understand their autism diagnosis in a healthy way, they can begin to talk openly about what it means to be autistic and their feelings surrounding the diagnosis.
If you are open with your child, they will know they can come to you to work through any challenges they may have and any complex feelings they may experience. Understanding what your child is going through and where they are struggling can also help you find the right support for them, such as a therapist or ABA services.
Sharing a Diagnosis Can Open Up Services and Opportunities
Once a child knows they are autistic they will have the language they need to describe themselves and their needs. This can help them advocate for themselves in school and anywhere else they may need accommodations or support.
Children with autism are also eligible for school support, such as through an individualized education program (IEP) or 504 plan. They may also be eligible to participate in groups and activities for autistic children, including “sensory hours” at museums.
Sharing a Diagnosis Can Help Create Community
Once children know they have autism it opens up the ability to talk about how other children have autism as well. This helps them not feel alone.
Parents and caregivers can then connect their child with other children on the spectrum and seek out books and movies that feature autistic characters.
Parents and caregivers can also seek out adults with autism who can help children see the great possibilities for their future. They can also help their children identify role models with autism, including actors Dan Aykroyd and Darryl Hannah and scientists Albert Einstein and Temple Grandin.
Telling Your Child They are Autistic Helps Them Not Feel Ashamed
If parents or caregivers hide an autism diagnosis from their child, the child may feel that there is something “wrong” with them. When they do eventually learn that they are autistic, they may think that they should be ashamed of who they are or that their parents are ashamed of them.
If children are unaware that they are autistic, they will not understand why they act or feel the way they do. Children may then feel ashamed of themselves. For example, they may try to suppress the stimming that helps them handle overwhelming situations or feel like they are a failure if they need to leave a loud party. Children who do not know about their diagnosis may feel depressed or ashamed that they have trouble making friends instead of being given the opportunity to learn the skills they need to be successful.
When Should I Tell My Child They Have Autism?
While it is vital for children to know they have autism, it is equally important to pick the right time to tell them.
There is no “magic age” to tell a child they have autism. Instead, the appropriate time to tell a child about their diagnosis should be tied to when they are developmentally ready to understand what it means to be autistic. Some children are ready to hear their diagnosis as soon as they are diagnosed, while it may be appropriate to wait to tell other children.
For instance, if a child is diagnosed as a young toddler, they won’t be developmentally ready to understand what it means to be autistic. It makes sense to wait until they are a little older to explain their diagnosis.
On the other hand, many children are diagnosed at a time when they are already developmentally ready to understand what it means to be autistic. It is healthy and appropriate to tell these children about their diagnosis immediately.
If you’re not sure if your child is ready developmentally to hear about their diagnosis, consult with their therapist or pediatrician. There is no benefit to putting off telling a child who is developmentally ready about their diagnosis. In fact, a delay may be harmful. There will be a longer time than necessary during which the child does not understand themselves, is not learning strategies to navigate the world, and cannot access support.
How Should I Tell My Child They Have Autism?
From her experience working with autistic children, Dr. Flood knows that deciding how to tell your child they have autism can be tricky. She suggests setting aside time when there will not be interruptions and a place free from other distractions. This is so you can give the conversation your full attention and fully focus on your child. Although it’s impossible to completely script how the conversation will go, practicing what to say before talking to your child is important. You will probably feel less nervous and more confident that way.
Parents and caregivers can benefit from consulting with a professional to learn ways to share a diagnosis. There is no one right way to communicate with a child that they are autistic since every child and family is different. Ask for guidance from the person who diagnosed your child or other support professionals already working with your child. Some parents and caregivers decide to share a diagnosis with their child’s therapist present, while others prefer privacy.
Reading child-friendly books about autism ahead of time can also be helpful. Dr. Flood recommends Autism Is…? by Ymkje Wideman-van der Laan and All My Stripes: A Story for Children With Autism by Danielle Royer and Shaina Rudolph. These books can help parents come up with age-appropriate language to describe autism. Parents and caregivers can then read these books to their children as part of explaining their autism diagnosis.