Revealing Autism 1

A parent asked recently about the wisdom of telling her elementary-aged son about his diagnosis of autism. He is in typical classes in school, but struggles with some basic motor tasks, interpersonal relationships, and organizational skills. After viewing a television commercial about the spectrum of autism, the youngster asked his mom if he was autistic. When she asked why he was asking about autism, her son said he was curious about the kids in the commercial. What are the pros and cons of revealing a diagnosis of autism to a youngster?

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Parents have several options when formulating an answer when their child asks specifically, “Am I autistic?” If the youngster is just asking a casual question, you might want to reveal the answer gradually. In most cases, a particularly curious and persistent youngster deserves a more specific answer.

1. EVASIVE ANSWER. You can start by saying, “Why do you ask?” If your child pursues the issue, consider saying something like this: “Probably most people have some bits of autism in their personalities. When you are bossy to other kids and use very big words, I can see some autism. Autism might be making it hard for you to take off a shirt easily or for you to write as fast as you think.”

2. INFORMATIVE ANSWER. You can respond to specific questions by say something like this:”What do you think autism is?” After you hear your child’s answer, you can work together to look up the “official” definition of autism. Then you can take time to discuss his strengths and weaknesses in the various areas included in the definition.

3. STRAIGHT-FORWARD ANSWER. Sometimes it is more appropriate to lay all the cards on the table. In this case, you can say something like this: “Remember when we went to talk to Dr. Madison? She asked you questions and performed some tests. In her professional opinion, you fall on the spectrum of autism. Everyone with autism is different – some people can talk, and others cannot. Some people can get upset with loud sounds or lots of people, and others do not. Some people get mad when their schedule changes, and others do not. Your autism peeks through when you are bossy to other kids or use very big words. Autism may be making it difficult for you to button your shirt easily or to organize your school papers.”

TIP FOR THE DAY. In my humble opinion, it is neither ethical nor helpful to lie by saying, “No, honey. You do not have autism.” It is inappropriate to make a big deal over a diagnosis or to over-emphasize the negative aspects of autism. I have about a dozen school-aged friends who have good receptive language skills and who are aware of their autism diagnosis. Most of these youngsters take their autism in stride – much like a child who is visually impaired or who is unable to walk because of CP or injury.

NOTE TO READERS AND LISTENERS: I am Cathy Knoll, a board certified music therapist and long-time friend of many folks with autism. At we are committed to providing free, practical, everyday tips for making life better for people with autism. Feel free to send me a confidential email at with your thoughts or challenging situations or innovative solution. And don’t forget to check out our website for a wealth of ideas and a glimpse into the world of autism.

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