Answering Your Child’s Questions about their Classmate with Autism

Tuesday April 11, 2023 at 12:01 PM


As a parent, you know that not every child is alike and most children differ from each other in unique ways. Roxanne Rayes, Board Certified Behavior Analyst and Gateway’s Vice President of Internal Development, told Metro Parent in an interview that 1 in 44 children is diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, making it likely that your child will share classrooms, sport teams, and other activities with a child on the spectrum.

With the likelihood of your child being around another child with autism, it’s important to know the difference between autism awareness versus acceptance. Roxanne shares that “autism awareness itself doesn’t improve the lives of those with autism or developmental differences.” Being able to value differences and increase acceptance of all forms of autism is a crucial step to build understanding and answer your child’s questions about their autistic peers.

Roxanne suggests talking to your child about autism with grace and normalization. Explaining the concept of autism can be challenging, but you can start by telling your child that having a spectrum disorder can have many different symptoms, interactions and behaviors, says Roxanne. “Autism is something their classmate was born with. It causes differences in the way their brain functions which means they may interact with the world differently.”

Autistic children may have different play preferences and may not know how to interact with others. On the outside looking in, it may seem like the child wants to play alone, but that’s not always the case. To increase the chances of playing together, Roxanne says to “Suggest finding and offering a toy that is highly preferred to the child”. Every day looks different for a child with gaps in social skills and learning, so if offering a preferred toy to your child’s classmate with autism does not work, encourage your child to try again another day.

“Having a friend can make all the difference to a classmate with autism, so encourage your child to be kind and helpful,” says Roxanne. Your child can do this by helping their classmate clean up, inviting them to join in activities, and maybe even playing alongside them to help expose their classmate to what playing together can look like. Through kindness and patience, your child can help their new friend build social skills and learn routines, which can be difficult for autistic children to learn independently.

When setting up playdates for your child and their friend with autism, make sure to check with their family to ask how to best accommodate their child in your home. It may range from snack/food preferences, light or sound sensitivities, etc. Your child’s friend and their family will be grateful that you’re taking this step to learn and accept their differences.

“Your child will gain a valuable skill of being accepting of others” Roxanne adds. They will know what autism looks like and how to interact with understanding and compassion in the real world. Taking the time to learn about autism with your child benefits everyone. She suggests watching Xavier Riddle and the Secret Museum or Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood on PBS or reading My Brother Charlie by Holly Robinson Peete, Just Ask! by Sonia Sotomayor or A Friend for Henry by Jenn Bailey to help you and your child learn about those on the autism spectrum.

Return to Newsroom
To Next Article