Friday, May 8, 2009

Well kids, it's like this...

Every now and then, my neighbor lets her kids come over and see my horses, or play with the kids in the backyard, or whatever. It's a rare thing, and I really enjoy them because they're super-nice kids and it's fun to have kids around who talk in a way that I can actually understand. Plus, the little girl loves horses and is always eager to talk horses with me. They came over a few days ago to see the baby Moal (mule foal= Moal, don't ask!) and once again the issue of explaining Jaymes came up.

How do you explain autism to a child? How do you explain it without it coming off as disparaging toward your own child? How do you do it in terms the kids will understand? How do you do it in that PC way?

They wanted to know how old he was, I forget how it came up. He's 5, I told them. Their little brother is just turned 6, and he talks like you and me. Ok, well Jaymes doesn't. Why doesn't he talk? Why does he wear diapers? Why does he not have homework from school? Why does he sit in a harness on the bus? Why does he hold their hands? Why doesn't he play games with them?

There are lots of ways to answer those things. most of them suck. As I'll illustrate here in a second.

Answer #1: Jaymes has Autism. The downside: The kids don't know what that means. Most adults don't know what that means. I know what that means, and thankfully the people I'm around most (the other parents at the therapy place) know what it means. However, as a response to a kid, it's out.

Answer #2: Jaymes is different than you. He does things his own way. The downside: I don't like pointing out Jaymes differences so pointedly. It seems offensive. Saying he does his own thing implies a lack of parenting, altohugh these are kids so they probably don't a hoot about my parenting. I can only imagine what gets told to their mom about Jaymes though, and how I relate to him. That's ok, most of the neighbors think we're all a little odd.

Answer #3: Jaymes doesn't know how to talk yet, he learns things a little slower than you guys do. The downside: This one makes Jaymes out to be stupid. A kid doesn't understand that everyone learns at different rates, nor do they understand delays. What they get out of this answer is, "Jaymes is dumb." And Jaymes is absolutely NOT dumb. He's just... Different.

Answer #4: Jaymes is in a special class, so he doesn't get home work. He works on other things, like learning to talk and draw. The downside: This is a crappy example of what Jaymes does in school, and as soon as it came out of my mouth I regretted it. But how do you explain to an 8 year old the concept of going to school to learn social skills from his peers? To learn to function in a group? To draw a circle when he should, in a perfect world, be writing his name by now?

Answer #5: This is Jaymes' backyard, so STFU.

Ok, I didn't really say that. I just ran out of answers, and this one was about as good as the rest of them. They all kind of suck.

I wish the schools would put some emphasis on teaching kids about differences, about how some kids sit in wheelchairs, some kids wear leg braces, some kids can't talk, some kids wear diapers past 5. I wish they could find a succinct way to explain autism and other disabilities to the students. I wish they would let their kids visit the special needs classrooms, rather than keeping them seperate from the rest of the kids. I wish autism awareness started in kindergarten. It would make explanations so much simpler.

I don't know how to explain Jaymes to a kid. I don't know how to talk to kids in anything but what I've dubbed "autism-speak". Short sentences. "Go get shoes" "sit in chair" "no spit" "quiet hands". We're all cavemen over here I guess. Better than Elmo, who (as Jaymes speech therapist reminds us) doesn't use a single pronoun.

Jaymes is different. Different isn't bad. He learns differently than other kids, and he has a harder time retaining what he has learned. He needs meds to help him focus, that doesn't mean he's bad. Sometimes he spits, but he isn't doing it to be mean to the other kids. Sometimes he screams and throws himself down when he is mad. He has a hard time controlling his emotions, and he doesn't always understand what is being asked. He is in a special classroom with no homework because he needs the extra help to sit in his seat and participate in class. He doesn't talk because... Well I don't know why. He talks just fine if you tell him what to say, or if it involves food. Maybe he has nothing to say. Maybe he doesn't know what to say, when. Maybe he doesn't care. I don't know. All I know is, he doesn't talk very much on his own. Again, it makes him different, not bad. Not dumb. He wears diapers because he hasn't made the connection that poop goes in the potty. He isn't a baby, he just needs to learn.

That about covers it, but I don't think a kid would understand this. Some adults don't get it. What would you say?


Jasmine said...

I totally understand. I think my mom probably does a great job explaining Autism to others. I am three years older than my Autistic sister and as a kid I had the hardest time explaining to friends and people at school exactly what it is. I remember telling one girl she was Autistic and she goes, "So what? I'm artistic too." I think our younger brother has an even harder time with it, being the youngest. He's 13 now. I don't know how he explains it to anyone, I guess I never really asked. My mom probably explains it all for him. My sister has outgrown a lot of stuff from when she was younger. She didn't talk until she was 4 or 5 and when she did talk, she hated having conversations or talking on the phone. I find her talking a lot more now, especially when I call home (I'm about 350 miles from home now), she's excited to talk on the phone. She let's me do more with her, too.
I know how hard it can be and you sound like you are doing a fantastic job.

MoonNStarMommy said...

That is GREAT ... totally gets a lot of the feelings across that a lot of parents of unique kids face. You don't want to put your child down in any way, or make them look or seem different or not "normal" but there is no way to explain well what is going on.

I am going to post a link to your post in one of mine :) Thanks for sharing!

dressage_x said...

I think you handled it perfectly, I remember as a kid knowing some kids were "different", but not exactly what was wrong with them.

And you know, some kids at my school will label them "the retarded kids". I don't even allow myself to use that word- because they are NOT retarded. They learn differently, and sometimes slower, but that is no reason not to be friendly to them.

I actually play UNO with them during my study halls, and we have normal conversations. I don't treat them differently at all, and they put me in such a good mood.

That is so nice that the neighbors come to play with Jaymes.

MoonNStarMommy said...

I just wanted to let you know that I did post a link to this entry and your blog in my latest entry at

Evie_Edlund said...

For me, I tend to err on the side of using the correct words, the word autism, or autistic. Challenge yourself to come up with a 20 word explanation of what Autism means for your son... perhaps that it is a difference deep in his brain that makes it harder to learn and do some things, and easier to learn and do others. Give them a brief example of a pro and a con. "He has trouble making letters with a pencil, but he knows all about XY or Z" (food, rockets, trains, tigers, whatever fits).

Kids understand more than we give them credit for. WAY more. A simple, non-judgemental answer may lead to a simple, non-judgemental acceptance.

Amber DBTD said...

Jasmine- LOL on the "artistic" comment. Sounds like things came out pretty well for your sister!

Moon&Stars- Thank you for the mention! I appreciate it!

Dressage- good for you. You all know how I feel about the "r word"

Evie- I think that would work for older kids, but not the 5 year olds around Jaymes. Even adults have trouble grasping the meaning of what autism is.