Friday, 29 November 2019

So Your Kid's Friend (or Friend's Kid) is Autistic

I've had this post turning over in my head for over a year now but hesitated to write it. As just one parent of an autistic child, it feels a bit fraudulent to be dishing out advice. Especially as I've still got so much to learn about autism myself.

But still, I know that some people want to support neurodiverse families but don't always know how. Maybe their child is good friends with an autistic child but they don't know how to behave around them. Or their friend's child has just been diagnosed and they want to support them, but don't have the words. So here are some pointers I have thought of in my limited experience, hopefully it'll be a starting point.

Photo by Max Goncharov on Unsplash

Get To Know The Child

This is the absolute first rule. Autism is such a broad spectrum that, like anyone, every autistic person will be unique, with their own strengths and challenges. So getting to know the individual is really important. If they are old enough and able to talk about their interests and their triggers then they are the experts on themselves, but younger children may not be able to self-reflect enough for this, and some autistic children may not communicate with words and so it's harder for unfamiliar people to understand them. Others can be reticent around people they don't know well. In these cases, talk to the parents as they are the next best sources of information.

Including The Child

For many autistic children, events like play dates and birthday parties are difficult to navigate. This doesn't mean that you shouldn't invite them over for tea or to a party if your child is close to them, but it's best to talk to the parents about it to see how they can be accommodated.

Some autistic children struggle with unpredictable situations, so knowing in advance what they might be doing and what food there will be will help them prepare mentally. Play dates with a set activity, such as a craft or watching a film, can work well. It might be wise to avoid competitive situations like board games if that child is particularly sensitive about losing.

For parties, there are more things to consider such as noise levels, crowds etc. If you think the child might struggle chat to the parent, it might be that with a familiar adult there and with enough prior information, they will be OK. If the party would be too much for them but your child is really keen to involve them, maybe arrange a play date instead, or see if there's a way of them coming to part of the day. I remember reading a lovely story a few years ago where a family arranged for their son's autistic best friend to come round an hour before the other guests so the two of them could play on the bouncy castle they'd hired.

Understanding the Child

There is a lot of great information out there about autism. There is also a lot of outdated, stereotyped and occasionally dangerous rubbish. The key to understanding and supporting autistic people and their families is knowledge, so finding out more about autism from reliable sources is a fantastic way to show that you care.

Sometimes autistic children will behave in ways that look like they're 'being naughty'. I personally don't believe any child is naughty for the sake of it, there is always a reason for their behaviour, and that is even more true with neurodiverse children. Living in a world set up for neurotypical people must be exhausting, even more so for children who are also still developing self-control, emotional regulation, communication and coping skills. So be understanding if you see an autistic child behaving in a way you wouldn't expect or allow your child to behave. They will almost certainly require a different set of 'rules' to your child.

Supporting the Parents

Being a parent of an autistic child is great in many ways, but seeing them struggle to cope with the world around them is hard. If you're close to the parents, offer opportunities to get together for a chat. Just asking if they're OK when you've seen them having a difficult day shows that you're on their side.

The flip side of this is celebrating with the parents when things are going well, and their child is making progress in a particular area. While some milestones come quickly for some autistic children (like Girl Child learning to read) others will take longer and feel really momentous when they arrive. So if your friend is talking about their child's big achievement, even if it doesn't seem big to you, be happy for them - and show it.

Above all, remember that nothing about autism is a tragedy. If someone tells you their child is autistic, don't say, "oh I'm sorry," or similar. Yes, it can be challenging, but autism is what makes my daughter who she is and she's pretty amazing. I wouldn't change her for the world. Although if she could learn to get ready for school on time, that'd be great.

I've probably missed all sorts of things out, so if any autistic people or parents of autistic children are reading and can think of anything else, please comment below and I'll add it to the post when I can. But I hope this will be helpful to anyone who is close to a family with an autistic child, to know how they can be an ally to them.

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