The Problem: I think one of my child’s friends might have autism based on our interactions with him. The boy has not been diagnosed and I don’t think autism is on the family’s radar. His behavior can be challenging and my child doesn’t want to play with him anymore, but I think there’s a deeper issue. How do I address my concerns with the boy’s parents?
The Expert: Lea Anne Paskvalich, executive director, Autism Society of Colorado.
The Solution: Parents know their children best. Autism may not be on their radar, but their child’s behavior is. The parent likely has concerns or has noticed the boy’s behavior is challenging in certain situations and around other children. What they may not know is that other parents are noticing, too. Parenting a child with social communication challenges when you don’t know the cause can be overwhelming. It can be painful and your gut instinct is to try to protect your child. Parents sometimes do this by explaining away the behavior: “My child is tired, hungry, or really prefers to play that game exactly the way we do at home.” However, bringing up the topic of autism can be done with love and compassion. Here’s how to initiate the conversation.
1. When you’re thinking about what to say to the parent, note the child’s strengths. Mention his vast knowledge of dinosaurs, unconditional love for your rambunctious puppy, amazing drawing or math skills. You want the parent to know you notice the child’s strengths.
2. If you suspect the child has autism but aren’t sure, tread lightly. Identify the concerning behavior and explain to the parent that you know this behavior can be present in some children with autism. Whether you have indirect experience (like through the media), or direct experience (through a family member’s or friend’s diagnosis), it’s important to share the source of your knowledge with the parent.
3. Open the door to more information or resources for that parent. If you have a family member or friend who has a child on the spectrum, offer to connect the two parents. For parents who are questioning a possible diagnosis, it can be incredibly reassuring to talk to another parent who has a child with autism. Reliable information about autism spectrum disorder can be found on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website.
4. Be prepared that the parent may be shocked at what you are suggesting. They may flat out reject your thinking/questioning or even be angry with you. If that’s the case, leave it at that. On the other hand, it may also elicit an overwhelming sense of relief or emotion that another parent has taken the time to think about their child and help them.
You can also help your own child understand that some children may have big feelings and reactions that they may not be able to manage in certain situations. Modeling empathy and kindness for the child that is struggling can go a long way with your own child. Involve your child in brainstorming outings on which you could invite the mom and her child to accompany you. Find and use your own knowledge, love, and compassion to support this child and parent, and the world will be a better place for it.
—Edited by Courtney Drake-McDonough