How to Explain Autism to Children

Three Methods:Explaining the Diagnosis to an Autistic ChildTalking with Other Children about AutismManaging Your Home Life

Sometimes it is difficult to explain to young children what autism is. This can be frustrating when a new sibling, classmate, or adult friend has the condition. Children with autism will notice they are different from other kids, and will want to know why. Children without autism should also know about the disorder, especially if they have a sibling with autism. Make sure children in your home without autism understand why their sibling sometimes behaves differently. Work on smoothing over conflict in your home. Continually explain why a child with autism received different treatment than other children.

Method 1
Explaining the Diagnosis to an Autistic Child

  1. 1
    Don't fear using the word. If you try to hide a child's autism or discuss it in whispers, they'll learn that it's something shameful or bad. You can mention the word "autism" in their presence even before they are old enough to understand. Many parents worry a child's self esteem will be adversely affected by being told their diagnosis. However, it's better to let the child know early on so he or she can start treatment programs and learn how to cope.[1]
    • There is not strict timeline for informing your child. The best time to tell depends on the individual child.
    • Some children will begin asking questions earlier on than others. In general, when your child stars to ask questions, this may be a good opportunity to begin the explanation.
  2. 2
    Learn the basics of autism. It's difficult to explain something if you don't even understand it. Do some preliminary research, so that you know the general facts and can answer simple questions. There are many great books written on autism that can help you explain the diagnosis to your child.[2]
    • Ask your doctor for reading recommendations. You can also reach out to other parents who have children with autism. You may also find some books meant to be read by children with autism to help them understand their diagnosis.
    • Some literature speaks very negatively about autism, treating autistic people as burdens upon their families. Watch your sources and use your judgment when selecting reading material.
  3. 3
    Expect to have multiple conversations. Your child will probably come back with more questions, and you'll have multiple opportunities to teach them. Don't feel that you need to fit all the information into one conversation. It's normal to have the conversation over a course of time.[3]
    • Always keep the conversation open. Remind your child, after an initial discussion of autism, that he or she can always come to you with questions.
    • Say something like, "If you ever want to know more, just ask. You may be confused sometimes by how you're reacting, and I'm always here to explain."
    • In many cases, a child learns the most about autism through asking as questions arise. You may not have the answers 100% of the time, and that's okay. If you don't know the answers, you can always say "I don't know" and look it up or ask someone else later.
  4. 4
    Keep the discussion positive. Look for inclusive children's books and movies, especially those written by autistic people. This can be an easy and fun way to introduce the idea of diversity and acceptance. You do not want a child with autism to view his or her differences as negative. Instead, focus how he or she is unique, special, and valued.[4]
    • Make sure the child knows he or she is not sick. Say something like, "You aren't sick. People are born with autism. Everyone is different."
    • Emphasize the fact the child is not alone. For example, "Many other children your age have autism as well. It's not at all unusual."
    • Make it clear that childhood messages of "be yourself" also apply to children with autism, and your child shouldn't need to hide who they are. Make it clear that you're proud of your child, autism and all.
  5. 5
    Make use of metaphor. Metaphor can help a child developed a better understanding of autism. Think of metaphors you could use to explain to a child how his or her brain operates differently.[5]
    • For example, you could have your child think about his or her brain as a machine. His or her machine may, at times, operate differently than other people's machines.
    • Explain that all machines are necessary and important, but they simply do different things. This can help a child with autism feel valued.
    • Say something like, "Let's say your brother's brain works like a toaster. A toaster is an important tool that achieves many vital tasks. Your brain works like a hairdryer, which is also a useful tool. However, it's very hard to make toast with a hairdryer, just as you couldn't dry hair with a toaster. Both of you have special contributions to the world. They're just very different."

Method 2
Talking with Other Children about Autism

  1. 1
    Use a neutral, accepting tone. Your attitude can help shape your child's opinions of autism. Use the same tone of voice that you'd use to explain why cars have wheels, or why you go to the grocery store every weekend. This sends the message that autism is okay, and nothing to worry much about.
  2. 2
    Explain the basics of autism. Your children may be confused after a sibling is diagnosed with autism. Have a quick sit-down discussion to explain the situation. It's important to start with the basics. Focus on what is most relevant to your child. This will depend upon the individual's symptoms.[6]
    • Explain why a sibling may behave differently. For example, say something like, "Because your sister is autistic, sometimes she needs quiet time and gets upset when people touch her without her permission."
    • Explain that autism is not a sickness, and therefore not contagious. Say something like, "Your brother is not sick. He simply sees the world differently."
    • Make sure children knows autism is not a choice. Children may become frustrated by a sibling's behavior, and they need to understand their sibling is not trying to upset them. For example, "The way Lucy acts sometimes is not her fault."
  3. 3
    Explain how to respond. You can let other children know how to help their loved one with autism. Briefly say what they can do to interact well and help the autistic person feel more comfortable. A child may, for example, be confused when someone with autism covers their ears or rocks back and forth. Offer insight into an autistic person's world to help explain.[7]
    • You can say things like, "If your friend is covering his ears, it means he needs some quiet time. You can help by giving him space and letting an adult know that he could use help." This explains how a child can deal with a friend or family member with autism.
    • Also, explain any behaviors that could potentially confuse a child. For instance, "Renisha flaps her hands when she is excited because she is autistic. It's normal for autism, and there's no need to worry about it. It just means she's having fun."
  4. 4
    Talk about some of the strengths associated with autism. Pinpoint a few strengths that the autistic person has, and explain them briefly. This lets the child know that autism isn't all bad, and that they don't need to feel sorry for the autistic person.
    • "Autism is also why you are so good at math, and why you have such a big imagination."
    • "Alex is good with computers, and knows a lot of things about cats, because of autism. It has great parts and hard parts."
  5. 5
    Make it clear that it's okay to be different. There's nothing "bad" or "wrong" with an autistic person, and they can be themselves just like other people do. Encourage your child to be open-minded and accepting towards autistic people.
  6. 6
    Let your child know how to be friends with a child with autism. Your children may have classmates that are autistic. They may also want to be friends with a sibling with autism. Make sure your child knows the best means to befriend someone with autism.[8]
    • Tell your child accept his or her friends differences. Remind your child someone with autism may respond differently than him at times. Make sure your child knows different is not always negative.
    • Encourage your child to talk in small sentences when interacting with someone with autism. You can also let your child know he can draw pictures or write things down.
    • Tell your child to be patient. It may take a child with autism longer time to respond or understand. This does not mean their friend is not listening or does not care. He or she simply needs more time to process the information.

Method 3
Managing Your Home Life

  1. 1
    Explain differences in chores and expectations. Neurotypical children may get frustrated or jealous if their autistic sibling does not have to help as much with chores. When such conflicts arise, calmly explain to your child why these differences are necessary.[9]
    • Always reassure your child with autism he or she is important. If siblings become jealous or feel left out, let your child with autism know he or she plays a special role in the household.
    • Explain to your other children things like play may actually be hard for a child with autism. For example, "I know it looks like your sister's just playing, but it's actually quite hard for her. She's trying to learn certain skills that do not come easy to her. This is a chore for her, just like you have to clean your room. It's just different."
  2. 2
    Share your attention equally. This can be difficult sometimes. A child with autism may often need special attention. Make sure to share your time as equally as possible. Provide one-on-one time to your other children.[10]
    • You may have to give extra attention to your child with autism. He or she may need extra help with schoolwork and managing a schedule.
    • Try to compensate with small gestures of affection to your other children. Say things like, "I'm really proud of you" and "You did a great job on that assignment."
    • When you have the time, spend one-on-one time with your other children. This can sometimes be hard to schedule, but try to get in some one-on-one time a few times per week.
  3. 3
    Reassure your non-autistic children regularly. Your non-autistic children may sometimes be frustrated or confused. They may feel their sibling gets more attention. Reassure them regularly they are valued, but have different needs. Say something like, "We love you all the same. It's just that Lucy sometimes needs extra help when you don't. It's never a reflection about how we feel about you."[11]
  4. 4
    Find activities everyone can enjoy. Some family activities may be off limits for an child with autism. If loud noises bother your child, for example, going to the movies can be stressful. Try to compromise and find activities everyone can enjoy.[12]
    • You can, for example, try having movie nights at home. A quieter setting may be easier for your child with autism.


  • Be honest when answering their questions about the condition.
  • Make sure you have an understanding of the topic before you discuss it with your child. Read books/articles written by autistic people, or by organizations that are run by autistic people.
  • The child may be curious, so it is best to talk to them about it before they become inquisitive to the child in question, who may be confused or upset by the strange questions.
  • Keep an eye on how your child interacts with the autistic child, and make sure that your child behaves respectfully. Model appropriate behavior whenever you interact with the autistic child.
  • Get children's books on autism.


  • Your child may be compelled to go ask questions to the child in question. Discourage this gently, unless you know that the autistic child will not mind talking about it. If the autistic person can take questions, then teach your child the difference between intrusive questions ("Do autistic people have bellybuttons too?") versus helpful questions ("Does the smell of hot peppers in my lunch bother you? Should I sit farther away from you today?")
  • Try not to overplay the importance of giving the child space; this may lead your child to believe that the autistic child should be avoided completely, leaving them feeling isolated. Encourage your child to talk to them, should they want to talk or ask questions.

Article Info

Categories: Autism Spectrum