CARE TALK: Tell me about your friend

CARE TALK is a monthly advice column in Aurora Magazine where a registered psychologist offers answers to common questions around mental health and counselling.

Q My six-year-old son came home from school and told me that he has a new friend with autism. I asked him to tell me about his friend and my son said, “He talks a bit funny and needs special help from another teacher.” My son then asked me if his new friend would have autism forever. Although I answered his question with a simple “yes”, I felt out of my depth and I am not sure how to talk to him about differences and disabilities in children.

A Children are refreshingly honest in their observations. It could be that your son was simply providing you with factual information and wanted to know the answer to his question. You may find that he did not feel uncomfortable at all talking about his friend and as the adult, it created discomfort in you due to your knowledge about the world and how disability may be perceived.

As adults, we know how important it is to give our children guidance regarding many topics, including relationships and the diversity of people, so they grow up to be accepting and respectful children and adults. When it comes to a condition such as autism, it is difficult to know exactly how to respond, as features and symptoms vary from person to person, along with levels of ability and disability. On one hand, it is important that your son treats this new friend just like any other friend. On the other hand, children with autism may need additional support and we want our children to know this as well, so that your son can better understand his friend during difficult times, such as sensory overload or other challenging experiences.

The next time you have an opportunity to talk to your son about his friend, offer some general invitations such as “Tell me about your friend” or “What sort of things do you do together?” Provide some age-appropriate advice about autism and make sure to point out strengths as well as difficulties children with autism experience. You could ask your son “What are some of the things (friend’s name) is good at?” “What are some of the things he finds hard to do?”

Once your son has given you some information about his friend, you could introduce basic information about autism and some situations children with autism may find a struggle. Have a look at the Autism Spectrum Australia website for useful information. If your son has some idea of challenges his friend may face, it will allow him to demonstrate more empathy rather than judge him unfairly. Perhaps you could invite his friend over for a play date and talk to this little boy’s Mum beforehand to get an idea of what he may like or dislike.

In terms of fully answering your son when he asked if his friend would have autism forever, you can simply answer “yes” but let him know that this does not mean his friend is unwell. It just means that he may need extra help for some things and not others because his brain works differently from your son’s brain. Be mindful and do not suggest that your son’s brain is “normal” and another child’s brain is “not normal”. Talking about differences and similarities is the key thing.

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Tanya Russell

Tanya Russell is CatholicCare's Assistant Director and a registered psychologist.

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