Chances are, you know one or two autism parents. You may find yourself interacting with an autistic person in public or seeing parents of children with autism post about their kids on social media. All of this is a good thing. Autism awareness is increasing; parents are no longer hiding or apologizing for their children. But with all this progress, comes a few missteps in understanding what to say to autism parents.
Autism parents have all been there, having a conversation with a loved one, who has nothing but love and the best intentions yet we get bombarded with one of the below questions or phrases. Sometimes these comments are frustrating, but other times they are hurtful.
Since it is Autism Awareness Month, I’ve decided to spread awareness on the more commonly used questions or phrases that should NOT be said to a person with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) or a parent of a child with autism, and what to say instead.
1. “They Don’t Look Like They Have Autism.”
This may be the most cringe-worthy one of them all. Honestly, it is at the top of the autism community’s list of things they never want to hear again.
There are no distinguishing features of autism. Autism traits vary from person-to-person so while one kid may show physical signs of autism (like arm flapping) others may not. But under no circumstance, does autism carry a physical feature medically documented.
While most people use this phrase as a compliment, it makes anybody impacted by autism wince. Don’t say it. Ever. Instead, if you are surprised that someone you are interacting with has autism, say nothing at all or ask how autism impacts them. This could lead to an insightful conversation about the specific autism traits they are affected by.
2. “Have You Seen The Good Doctor?”
This is the new “he doesn’t look like he has autism.” Almost every single time I tell someone about my son, they ask me or send me a link to this (or another) show.
In our case, we have a hard time watching shows about autism. We need a break from our stresses. Another trigger for the autism community is these shows feed a stereotype that all children with autism are savants.
Instead, ask what they think about the number of shows and movies with autism characters. Do they feel this helps with autism awareness? This is an active discussion in the autism community with a wide array of opinions that always leads to a thoughtful discussion.
3. “I’m Sorry”
This one I’ll never get. I understand the need to say something or the urge to fill the blank space after learning about my son’s autism diagnosis, but my son is not a tragedy. The only thing that makes this phrase more hurtful is when it is accompanied by “the look.”
Instead of saying “I’m sorry,” inquire on when the diagnosis was received. Ask about the challenges or successes they’ve had since diagnosis.
4. “Have You Heard/Tried?”
Most parents have their Google doctorate in autism research. There is rarely an article we haven’t seen, oil, supplement, diet, etc. etc. that we have not tried. Autism parents live their lives buried in research and recommendations. Advice from someone who may not understand autism is frustrating.
Instead, inquire if any research they have done has worked for them. Ask with genuine curiosity, and I’m sure you’ll be fascinated by the amount of research and trial-and-error autism parents go through each day.
5. “Do You Think They’ll Grow Out Of It?”
Perceptions of autism revolve around a person who has challenges with social interactions, or that they are “high-functioning” or that autism ceases past the age of 18. In truth, parents live in fear of what happens when their children become adults. Will they need assisted living? Will they ever be able to get a job? And the most painful, “What will happen when I’m no longer around?”. These questions cut like a dagger into an already sensitive wound. Avoid this question and anything near this subject altogether. Instead, ask if they’ve had any progressions lately. Be prepared to party at the smallest of achievements.