How to talk to family and friends about autism
If your child has received a diagnosis of autism, or you are an adult who has recently had a diagnosis, then there are likely to be many things that you are contending with. For some people, how you talk about autism to your family and friends can be one of the most challenging.
It is very helpful to remember that there are no hard and fast rules regarding when or with whom you share information about a diagnosis. It is always a personal decision, and while there are undoubted benefits to be gained from sharing a diagnosis with those closest to you, there is no obligation to disclose every detail should you feel it is not helpful or may be difficult. The decision should ultimately be one that reflects your own particular family and personal circumstances.
How should you talk to your family about an autism diagnosis?
For many people, it can take some time after first receiving an autism diagnosis to decide on how the information is shared and who it is shared with. In particular, it can be daunting in some scenarios to talk about a diagnosis with other family members.
This is not at all unusual. Although there is undoubtedly a greater appreciation in the community of the prevalence of autism than there once was, it is nevertheless the case that many people don’t understand how it impacts on people on the spectrum. It is therefore not unreasonable to feel some hesitation in sharing a diagnosis, even with your closest relatives, if you are unsure of the response and support you will receive.
You may be concerned, for instance, that family members may want to resist or ignore the diagnosis, or that they have a misguided view of what autism actually is. However, having an engaged and supportive family network can be extremely helpful, and so discussing autism with family members will in most cases produce positive outcomes for all.
Approaches to talking about autism
One of the most helpful ways of talking about autism, particularly with people who are not especially aware of its signs or characteristics, is to focus on behaviours.
You can explain, for instance, about the specific characteristics of any difficulties your child may have with communication or social interaction, or any behaviours of concern they display.
It is also worthwhile to introduce people to the idea that no two children on the spectrum are alike, and so what they may have read or heard about autism previously may not be relevant to your child.
These may seem like obvious and straightforward points to make, but if people in your family have not previously engaged with anyone on the spectrum, these could nevertheless be very useful starting points for a more detailed discussion of autism.
Some family and friends will likely want to talk about what causes autism. Explaining that the causes of autism are still largely unknown, and that it’s likely that there is not one single cause, can be another way of exploring the topic — and the many misconceptions about autism — more generally.
Be positive about your diagnosis
It may be helpful when talking about your child’s autism to discuss the positive impact of having received a diagnosis. You might choose to explain to family members that having an autism diagnosis can be beneficial as they (and you) now have a better understanding of their behaviours. It is also useful to explain that in some cases, receiving a diagnosis can reduce the sense of isolation that children on the spectrum can feel before they know about autism, as they recognize that many other people share similar characteristics and might connect with the autistic community.
When talking about an autism diagnosis, it can also be helpful to explain that this can increase access to a range of support services, plus access to therapies and interventions, that were not previously available. You might also like to explain the benefits that a diagnosis can have in terms of their education, as their school may be better placed to offer appropriate support strategies based on their specific needs.
Use positive language
If people haven’t previously engaged with autistic individuals, they may be hesitant to talk about autism because they are unsure of the language and terminology that is currently in use. If you are able to discuss autism in positive terms, identify and model the language that you and your child prefers to use, then others around you are likely to adopt this as well, and so feel more comfortable talking to you about autism and asking questions as a result.
Encourage friends and family to be a part of your support network
One of the best ways of talking about autism with your family and friends is to suggest ways in which they can provide support to both you and your child.
This will give you opportunities to talk more about your child’s specific needs and, in so doing, it is likely that family members will better come to understand the signs and characteristics of autism. It will also give those around you more opportunities to learn and understand your child’s particular strengths and skills, and to appreciate the benefits of having received a diagnosis, both now and in the future.