19 Jun 2009

Explaining autism to class of 8 year olds

Last week a reader asked for advice on how to tell children in his/her son's school class about his autism.

I've discovered that some boys in my son's class believe he is brain damaged. Now they're not evil children and were happy to talk to me about this. They just want to know what's 'wrong' with their well liked classmate. Age of these children 8ish.

I've mentioned it to his learning support assistant and class teacher. I think a class talk is necessary. The problem is my son thinks he's perfectly normal with something called in his words 'I forget what is it again? Oh yeah Autism.' Of course to us at home he IS perfectly normal. He's aware that he behaves differently from others but he's very happy about this difference.

The county autism team have suggested that my son not be present when the talk is given. I don't know about this.

Can anybody help?

How do we go about this? How does anyone explain autism to a bunch of children without resorting to cats and mawkishness?

I don't know if it would be right to have a class meeting about the boy without him present. It would be better, in my opinion, to have someone, you the parent? talk to the class and then take questions. Your son could say a few words too if he wanted.

I tell children who come here that Duncan is autistic. Then I explain that it's a kind of disability that for him means it's harder for him to speak and understand other people and that he likes to do things in a different way from most boys his age. I've not had to tackle the class situation and most children who come here don't play with him much anyway as he just ignores them. I know what you mean about cats and mawkishness. Since I've been of no help, I'll leave this post up and invite the clever people who read this to leave their advice in the comments.


Heike said...

Here is what i did whem my son started preschool and school. My son has CP.
I wrote a letter to all the parents of his class, explaining to them what CP is, how my son got it, and how it affects him. It explained who he is beyond CP, the thing he likes and dislikes. There was a section on explaining CP to young children in simple terms and anticipating some questions the kids might ask (like "Do reassure your child that CP is something Beaver was born with, and they can not catch it from him" - a typical anxiety /question kids have) and of course my phone number with an invitation for more questions.
I found that kids are curious and want to know and understand. They are very open and tolerant once they know. Most of them just go "oh, ok!". It the parents that have the prejudice. I find openness is the best thing - and your child will one day work out there is a label attached to him, so better they hear it from you and it was never a big secret. In any case, they will have questions too! And many older kids recall the moment of hearing their diagnosis for the first time and suddenly they no longer felt like a freak, they understood. Just like my friend who was adopted, and struggled her whole life to make sense of herself.
But a class meeting is too much, i think. Makes it too much of an issue, and it's way too confronting (for both the class and your child). Surely there are many opportunities where a teacher can talk about being different. Maybe there can be a session on it, like tackle race, religion, hair colour, wearing glasses, and different disabilities. And hwo all of this is normal, part of the wonderful diversity of humanity. I would talk to the kids interested in your child in particular on a one on one basis, and aks the help of their parents. Anyway, just my thoughts. I'm sure you'll get plenty more advice.

Sharon said...

See, I knew clever people read this! Thanks for that Heike.
It's just not something I have had to deal with as even when Duncan was at school it was a special school and the children all had some disability or other.

farmwifetwo said...


It's on amazon.com as well. I sent this book to the school when my son was in Gr 1. The teacher took 2 days to go over the book with the children.

They reviewed the book with the children in Gr 2.

Now btwn K, Gr 1 and Gr 2... the children view him as just another classmate. They greet him wherever he is and don't expect him to always say hello. They do always tell me that he's a classmate of theirs.

He's having a great time at school.


kathleen said...

I talk to the parents...my school is so very very silly and politically correct in some ways...they will not even mention the word "disability" for fear of offending...I have often raised the point at school meetings that this was ridiculous. Kids notice things and ask questions..last year some girls told my son that his brain was somehow broken-and needed to be fixed-a thought that was very upsetting to him. I brought this up to the head of school-which in turn started a "everybody is different" series of talks to all the students. It was helpful. I on the other hand always make it a point to talk to the other parents in my boys classes. This has been very helpful-my boys are happy..and accepted. To go off topic for a moment-Sharon, I forgot to mention when I commented on your post "Just as he is" how very beautiful that picture of your son is-the calm joy on his face holding his duck is just so very lovely. I can't believe I forgot to mention it!

Sharon said...

I got another tip from a Facebook friend, a book called 'Can I tell you about Asperger syndrome' by Jude Welton. It's not dear either.

Farmwifetwo, thanks for that. It's great to hear that your son enjoys his school and that his friends just take him as he is. No doubt your input helped them.

Kathleen, it's more politically incorrect NOT to mention disability, I think! It makes out that it's bad or scary rather than just part of life. Glad to hear you managed to help his class mates understand better too.
Thanks for saying you like the photo, I think it's lovely myself.

farmwifetwo said...

I'd like to claim it's perfect, and it's not. But, I can't complain either that the children and the teacher's aren't trying. This spring they started working on parallel play in the playground. To use peers for buddies not just the Gr 8's.

Little steps, play skills will now be in his IEP for a long time. Steps that he and they can make together. His communication and group play skills are poor in general settings, but they're trying and we and they understand it will be a slow process.

I can live with that... and he loves going to school. We're good.


farmwifetwo said...

I forgot, we live rural, so I don't have the "who are those kids" problem with the other parents. It's one of the few pros of everyone knowing your business before you do ::eye-roll:: :)

jypsy said...

I wrote my own book, illustrated with photos. The first one was in grade 1. It would have been read to the class at the beginning of the year by the teacher. The book remained in the classroom so the kids could see it any time they wanted or borrow it for the night. I updated it every year. By grade 4 it was no longer necessary. I've uploaded a copy of one of the pages (updated, grade 2 or 3) here. Most common question - "why can't he talk?". They were quite ok with an answer of "I don't know..."

3laine said...

As someone who was misdiagnosed as having 'mild CP', I would like to comment. I was mainstreamed at 6 years old and found this a really big adjustment. The main thing was that I really stood out as the 'handicapped kid', especially in primary school. Bullying and name-calling were quite common and I never really seemed to settle in.

However, the teachers on the most part did nothing. In some ways, I think they encouraged the bullying by treating me more favourably than my classmates. Of course, this lead to resentment and jealousy, because my classmates didn't understand why I was being given 'special' treatment.

I think it is important for teachers to explain to kids that disabilities and differences are a part of life. I think that some adults are more prejudiced. I spent quite some time lecturing my careers adviser that I don't 'suffer' from AS. Hopefully, she will take that on board.

I recommend speaking to the parents, rather than having a class meeting. I'm sure the child doesn't want everyone in his class knowing, just yet.

But whatever way you choose to tell your son's classmates he is autistic, include him. Let him have a decision in what is and isn't said about his 'disability'. Let him speak about life the way he sees it and also to talk about his own hobbies, as well. At least that way, his classmates can see that he isn't really 'different' after all.

Also, giving him a chance to speak for himself will increase his self-confidence and he will be able to assert himself better. As an adult, it is very likely that he will have to advocate for himself and show everyone that he is more than just 'disabled'.

Sharon said...

@jypsy, your book is fantastic. It's such a good idea to have something personalised like this, especially for children like Alex or Duncan (if he ever needed it) and who can't at that age explain themselves so well.

@3laine, good advice thanks. It is best to have the child as involved as he/she can be.

Sorry to hear about the bad treatment you endured at times when you were at school. That will have been very hard.

Anonymous said...

In the end I got a book called

a book about what autism can be like by sue adams

It fits the criteria for my son, who will be present when the talk goes ahead. The book in in black and white and the images and words are simple and straighforward.

I love the other suggestions here as well and it shows that there is something out there to suit the individual needs of our children.

Thank you for posting specially on this topic.

thriftymomma said...

I am doing this this morning and I know this is last minute, but I am looking around for advice on how to normalize differences for my daughter's grade one class and so I found you. Thanks. Paula