April is Autism Awareness Month. What can you do to support the autism community today?
You are at a playground and strike up a conversation with a mom pushing her baby on the swing next to your little one. It probably goes something like this. “How old is your son? What town do you live in? Thank God it’s finally spring!” Then you hear screaming and see another child struggling with some playground equipment — and the mom next to you goes running. She comes back and says, “Sorry, my other son has special needs. (Awkward pause.) He’s autistic.”
This situation may not have happened to you yet, but it probably will at some point. As a mother of an autistic child, I have experienced this situation almost weekly starting in the spring and right through the fall. I have only been on one side of the conversation, and I can tell you there are a few responses I’ve received after announcing my son has autism that really are the worst.
Please don’t say the following:
“You’d never know by looking at him.”
I’m thinking the following statement in my head when you say that. “Yup, and my grandmother was completely deaf and you’d never know by looking at her either.”
What you could say instead is: “When was he diagnosed?”
Don’t say this either:
“I have (insert obscure relative or friend of a friend) who is autistic.”
Unless said autistic person is someone you are close with and see on a regular basis — your child, sibling, cousin, nephew, niece, or closest friend’s child. According to the CDC, one out of 68 children is diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. So yes, odds are you have encountered someone at some point who knows someone with autism. When someone tells you they have cancer, would you typically tell them about everyone you’ve ever know with cancer? No, you would not.
What you could say instead: “That must be difficult sometimes. Do you have family or friends close by?”
And never ever say this:
“He looks like he is doing great!”
I know you mean well, and you are trying to make me feel better. However, you don’t realize that it has taken hundreds of hours and years of therapy at home and school to get him to where he is. You don’t know that he has motor planning processing delays and cannot always navigate playground equipment. You don’t know that we are currently struggling with him hitting us — his parents — and his teacher. Don’t get me wrong — my son is incredible. We love him for who he is, and most days are great. However, I just abruptly left a conversation with you to deal with him, so what about that seems great to you?
Here is what you could say instead, and it is so simple.
“How is he doing?”
I love this question because it starts a real conversation. It gives me an opportunity to share the awesome things my son has going on. It also allows me to ask you the same question about your child.
Bottom line. Don’t feel awkward or weird. I am a mom, and we are in this together. I want to hear your story, and I want to share my story, too.