April is Autism Acceptance Month, so you may have seen posts or campaigns highlighting what it means to be Autistic or neurodivergent. I’d like to start by saying I am not an expert on neurodiversity. I happen to be the parent of an Autistic child. So while I don’t have all the answers, I do know a few things about loving a neurodivergent person and would love it if more parents talked to their kids about what it means.
How should we start?
First, before we even broach the topic of neurodiversity, let’s model it. Model acceptance, model inclusion, model curiosity, model making mistakes and making amends. I know I can think of times where I wish I had been less judgmental and given someone more grace not knowing the whole picture. Something as simple as encounters at the grocery store can be an opportunity to model acceptance of others.
Talk about it by talking about it.
It’s okay to use the word Autistic, no euphemisms needed. Disability isn’t a bad word. The good news is, we don’t have to fear labels. Accurate language is not bad, because being Autistic (just like race, sexual orientation, religion, or any other aspect of your identity) is not bad, less, or undesirable.
If you encounter a person who is stimming, you could say, “They look excited, what do you think? Sometimes you jump up and down when you’re excited too.” If someone doesn’t respond in an expected way at the park, you could say, “Hmm, it doesn’t look like they want to talk to you right now, but you can say hi and tell them your name. Maybe they want to play. Let’s pay attention to the signals they’re giving us to figure it out.” Basically, just act like you would with anyone else. Say hi, invite them to play, ask questions, and be understanding.
Here’s what not to do.
Please don’t assume, shush your child, or hurriedly move away from the situation. Judgments and negative comments are incredibly hurtful, and when we don’t know the whole picture, can be really off-base. Don’t be afraid to get it wrong. Generally, people can tell if you’re coming from a good place, and saying the wrong thing or doing the wrong thing is okay as long as you’re willing to learn!
Expose your child to diversity.
Ideally, exposure to neurodiversity should happen within your community as you’re out and about. Other ways include introducing books, shows, and movies with characters with diverse abilities and neurotypes and talking about what you notice.
Here are a few of my favorite suggestions that either highlight neurodiverse characters or promote a message of acceptance:
- My Brother Otto by Meg Raby
- A Friend for Henry by Jenn Bailey
- All My Stripes by Danielle Royer and Shaina Rudolph
- Dragon And His Friend by Steve Herman
- I’m Not Just a Scribble by Diane Alber
- Mockingbird by Kathryn Erskine
- Pablo (series)
- Daniel Tiger episode – “Daniel Meets a New Friend”
- Fancy Nancy episode – “Nancy’s New Friend”
- Sesame Street episode – “Meet Julia”
Movies and Short Films
- Pixar’s Loop
- Pixar’s Float
- Mitchell & the Machines
- Ron’s Gone Wrong
- Lilo and Stitch
I want to make a quick note here about authenticity and the importance of amplifying neurodivergent voices: the best choices for books and shows will be centered around, and include, people who are neurodivergent. Especially when it comes to TV shows and movies, there are times where Autistic/neurodivergent people are portrayed in a very stereotypical way or their stories are told through a neurotypical lens. I tried to pick choices that are generally well-received by the Autistic community, but these reactions are not universal and something to keep in mind when discussing these with your child.
Kids are naturally inclined to notice differences, but will typically move on and accept these differences quickly if they are explained and acknowledged. I’m continually learning and trying to have these same conversations with my own children. These topics relate and overlap with any perceived “difference” whether it be race, religion, gender, or any other aspect of our identity.
While we are all a work in progress, I can’t help but wonder how much more accepting our world would be if we continually work to include these conversations and attitude shifts. What about you? Any other suggestions you would add to this list?