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Dear Care and Feeding,
I’m the father of three boys, ages 7, 5, and 3 months. Our eldest has a diagnosis of autism. So the obvious has been looming for some time, and my wife and I need some help. How do we tell our son he is different?
He is very high-functioning (although this question would apply regardless)—so nothing about the disability is apparent to our son or even to others. But he is asking questions here and there as he gets older. For instance, he is in an assisted baseball program, whereas his middle brother is now in a run-of-the-mill baseball league, and he receives some assistance and accommodation at school.
As he gets older, we know we are going to be confronted by more and more questions. We know we’ll tell him eventually, but how and when are still a question mark. Obviously, every kid is different, but some general advice on how to approach this would really help.
Lost in Space
You’re talking about The Talk. And I’m glad that you are thinking so deeply about how to do this well. You are right that it’s going to come up sooner or later and that you need to be prepared. I think it’s best to speak directly about what is happening. The fear, of course, is that your son will think that there’s something wrong with him, that he is somehow less than. Children are extremely intuitive, so if you hem and haw as though you’re breaking the news that his puppy died, he will likely believe that this diagnosis is a tragedy, that he is broken. I would suggest that you wait until he brings it up—and he for sure will bring it up. He will hear the word, see a mailer, notice the heading on a website you have open, and ask what it’s all about.
At that point, you want to explain it to him as simply as you can. Autism means that some people’s brains are wired differently. You can explain what that means by using the experiences he is already having. If he is experiences sensitivity to light and sound, you explain that sensitivity to light and sound are things that happen with autism, and so forth, always drawing upon his experiences to explain the condition. Your goal here is to help him understand why he’s experiencing some of the things that he’s experiencing, and that it’s totally normal. I might also list some successful people who were thought to have had autism: Albert Einstein, Mozart, Michaelangelo, Temple Grandin. I would use this to talk about the gifts that he has, the things that he is able to do that you’ve seen already. And I would talk again and again, and again and again, about how much you love him. How much his family loves him. What a delight he is to have.
Then I would be willing to answer questions. He may want to know if it will go away. He may want to know if there’s a cure for it. He will want to know what else to expect. You will want to have answers for these questions, and I’m sure that you’ve done so much research and preparation in your efforts to understand his condition that you’ll do a wonderful job. Or he may process it entirely differently from how you expected him to. The things you tell him may appear to go in one ear and out the other until he comes back a week later with a full slate of questions. I’m not telling you anything that you don’t already know. Your son is amazing, a truly beautiful person. And yes, he is lucky to have you, but you are also lucky to have him. My heart is with you.