Autistic kids need to be able to talk about disability

Disabled kids need to be able to talk about disability. Difference isn’t a good enough word. Everyone’s different from everyone else in some way. Not everyone has a disability. People who have disabilities need to be able to talk about that, both in general and specific terms.

I’m writing this partly in response to comments I’ve seen on several good posts that have been circulating recently on why it’s important to tell autistic kids they’re autistic.

I’ve seen some parent responses that seem superficially positive, which actually miss the point:

  • “Yes, we told him about that. We told him it’s the thing that makes his brain different, and that it’s why he’s so smart.” or
  • “We told her that autism means she’s awesome!”
  • “We told him he just thinks a little differently.”

That’s not good enough, because it doesn’t address autism as a disability. Knowing the word “autism” only goes so far. Kids also need to be able to talk about disability in a nuanced way, without glossing over things.

Kids will know that there are difficult and painful aspects of being disabled whether or not you talk about it. You can’t protect children from that knowledge by refusing to talk about it; you just end up sending the message that they’re on their own in dealing with it.

Here are some other things autistic kids need to know, beyond the word autism (not an exhaustive list by any means):

The basic version:

  • Autism is a disability
  • It’s one of the reasons some things are really hard for you
  • It also comes with strengths
  • You’re not going to grow out of it. You *are* going to grow up.
  • You can do things that matter.
  • There are other kids and adults like you, and we’re going to help you meet some of them
  • Some people are prejudiced against people like you. It’s ok to be upset about this.
  • Some things are going to be different for you than they are for most other kids, in ways that might not be predictable.
  • It’s ok to have questions
  • It’s ok to feel however you feel about all of this
  • Your parents and other supportive adults are here for you, and will help you figure things out and get help when you need it

Some other, more complicated (and also not exhaustive) information:

And any number of other things.

Disability is complicated. Disability is something we spend our whole lives dealing with, and that we never stop learning about. This is not something you can cover with your child in one conversation When you talk to your kids about being disabled, it’s really important to let it be complicated, and to be honest about it being a long-term conversation. It’s important that they know that you can handle talking about it, and that it’s ok for them to have questions, feelings, and to need help figuring things out.

tl;dr Telling your autistic kid that they are autistic isn’t enough. You also have to talk to them about disability.