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Finding the Words: Explaining Autism to Neurotypical Kids

By Christine Denise

Autism Mom and Contributing Writer for As You Are, a virtual clinic dramatically increasing access to early autism diagnostic services through the use of exclusively telehealth appointments


Inspecting New Places

My little Louie loves to put his face under water.

Any kind of water – no matter where it is.

A puddle. A toilet. A sink. A tub that’s not his. (He knows how to turn on faucets of just about any kind. Yay for all that occupational therapy for his fine motor skills!)

One of the first things my husband and I do if we ever go to a new place or friend’s house is look for the bathrooms and try to see if we can close their doors or lock them.

Pools are, of course, his holy grail.

His fatal attraction to water is one of the dead giveaways to typical children around him that he is different.

Otherwise, he looks like any kid.

A kid who should answer you when you say hello.

Or know what you’re asking when you tell him you want to play.

Or know how to tell you his name when you ask him.

His autism isn’t immediately obvious in a visual sense.

There are no obvious deformities – no physical challenges or aides like a wheelchair or a feeding tube that make the fact that he has a disability recognizable.

That’s why when he goes for water – no matter where it is – I know I’m going to have to explain it to the children around him.


Making Introductions 

The words have come much easier than I thought they would.

When he was first diagnosed, thinking about how I would explain him to the rest of the world was just one of so many stressors. 

At a friend’s pool party recently, Louie was doing his thing with the water he loves so much.

Laying on the concrete edges of the inground pool, stretching his body as far out across the water as his little arms would let him, dunking his face in the water and coming up with a big mouthful of pool water.

Sometimes he spits it out.

Sometimes he doesn’t.

Then, should he find a puddle of pool water along the concrete edges of a pool, he loves to put his face in that, too.

The plastic lids to pool filters are irresistible.

Putting his face on them while hitting them like a drum is one of Louie’s favorite pastimes.

I watched, as I always do, as the typical children around him started noticing his odd behavior at the pool party we went to for our older children’s soccer team.

It unfolded much like group situations with typical kids who don’t know Louie always do.

They tried talking to him. Then, they talked to each other. Then, they started pointing at him. Some looked concerned. Some laughed. Most were confused. 

Louie was oblivious to it all.

I let it play out long enough for Louie to have an audience, so I could explain him to as many of the little ones as possible – and only have to do it once.

I always start by introducing him, because he can’t introduce himself.

“Hey guys, this is Louie. I just want you to know that he doesn’t know how to talk yet and he does a lot of things differently than anyone you might know that is your age.”

“Why?” one of them asked.

It’s a question I’ve been asking myself ever since he was born. 

But for now, all I can tell them is our very simple truth. 

“Well, because he was born this way. We don’t know why. All we can do is love him the way he is. I just want you to know he understands what you’re saying to him, but he just can’t talk back to you. He likes to play, too, but just not play directly with you. He likes to play alongside you or near you. And if he grabs you, it’s only because he wants your attention and just doesn’t know how to get it.”

The reaction from another one of them was typical: “Ok, cool.”


Using Words Kids Understand

I returned to my perch, a safe distance away.

Far enough to watch, but not hover.

The group of enlightened little ones slowly dispersed. 

Some kids were no longer entertained, because they now had an understanding that what they were seeing was, in fact, someone who was different. 

Some kids stayed around, trying to talk to Louie and slowly losing interest. 

One little guy stuck with him. Going underwater with his goggles to watch Louie dunk his face beneath the silence of the pool water.

I don’t really use the word autism to explain his condition to children. I feel like explaining how he acts differently is what kids need to know.

The word autism doesn’t really mean much to adults, let alone children. 

Still, it is the word I use when it comes to explaining him to adults. 

Even if they don’t know what it really means, they know it means he’s different.

And that’s why he just helped himself to a perfect stranger’s drink.

Hugged someone he never met for no reason.

Pinched a random person to get their attention.

Ran his hand across as many products on the shelves of a grocery store aisle that he can if it’s not big enough for us to walk the cart down the middle.

Or why he just dunked his head in someone’s toilet, just to experience his favorite feeling in the world – water on his face.


Do you have questions about your child’s development? The team at As You Are provides useful autism screening and diagnostic evaluations for kids 16 months to 10 years old via telehealth appointments.


Disclaimer: I am not a medical professional. This is a sponsored blog post, but all opinions are my own.

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