Sometimes we all struggle to say the right thing. Which is why sometimes you need to hear it from the people who know best.
We know they mean well. Or at least we hope they do. All of the family, friends, co-workers and even strangers who approach parents of children on the autism spectrum with words that really should never have left their mouths in the first place. Words that often unintentionally hurt or upset family members who are affected by autism.
So, in the spirit of National Autism Awareness Month, some of my friends and clients who have children on the autism spectrum decided to brainstorm a list of statements they wish people would and wouldn’t say.
1. Don’t say: “Is your child an artistic or musical genius? What special gifts does your child have?”
We’ve all seen Rain Man and know about the extraordinary artistic and musical gifts that some individuals on the autism spectrum possess. But the truth is that most on the spectrum do not have these gifts. In fact, only about 10 percent have savant qualities.
Do say: “How is your child doing?”
This is what you’d say to the parent of a typical child, right? It’s perfectly acceptable to say this to the parent of a child on the spectrum. They can share with you what’s going on in terms of their child’s treatment and/or educational experience.
2. Don’t say: “You’d never know by looking at her that she has autism! She looks so normal.”
While the speaker might view this as a compliment, most parents of a child on the spectrum would not take it as such. Additionally, in the world of autism, the word “normal” is usually replaced with “typical” or “neuro-typical.”
Do say: “Your daughter is adorable”
Or offer any other compliment that you would use with any typical child.
Please don’t use clichés. Unless you’re the parents of a child on the spectrum, you don’t really know just how much there is to handle. Statements like these seem to minimise a parent’s experience by implying that this situation is something that they should be able to handle. Also, while it’s tempting to try to put a positive spin on the diagnosis, most parents of newly diagnosed children don’t feel that the diagnosis is the “best.” Over time, parents come to a place of acceptance, and some even view the diagnosis as a gift or as a way to gain a different perspective on life. But don’t be the one to instruct them about coming to those terms.