By Samantha Sallade, Ph.D.
Dr. Sallade is a certified school psychologist who is experienced in evaluating children for autism and other neurodevelopmental challenges. She is the Director of Clinical Outreach of As You Are, a virtual clinic dramatically increasing access to early autism diagnostic services through the use of exclusively telehealth appointments.
If your child receives a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder, it’s natural to have lots of questions. One of the most common questions I hear is, “When do I tell my child about this diagnosis?” Or, “Do I have to say anything to my child about this diagnosis?”
Although the phrasing may vary, parents are very often concerned about what to tell their children, how to tell their children, and whether to tell their children at all. No matter how old your child is, it’s smart to think through these concerns now, so you’re ready in the future. Here are some tips that can help.
“When” ultimately depends on the child
Every child with autism is unique, and you know your child best. You should take your child’s specific strengths and challenges into account as you decide when to talk with your kiddo about the diagnosis and next steps. For example, children who have intellectual disabilities may not need too many details. For high-functioning children who realize they’re different, it often makes sense to talk with them about it soon after the diagnosis.
A diagnosis can lead to self-acceptance
For anyone, at any age, compassion is key to self-acceptance. If you’re trying to improve in some area of your life, you can make more changes if you are compassionate with yourself and are not too judgmental. For kids who realize they’re different from their neurotypical peers, but don’t understand how or why, it can be a struggle to give themselves the love and kindness that they deserve.
An autism diagnosis is not an excuse, but it is an explanation. Knowing about autism and how it affects them can help your child understand that their differences are just part of who they are and are not something to degrade or belittle themselves about. As a person with autism, your child may have to approach certain things differently – but, everyone has different challenges
Self-acceptance can have lifelong benefits
If you’re not sure whether to broach the subject with your child, consider this: self-acceptance and self-awareness can lead to better well-being later in life for people with autism, according to a 2022 study.
I understand that as a parent, you may not feel comfortable with the idea of burdening your child with a label. And I agree that the specific diagnosis doesn’t matter – their unique challenges, and how they deal with them, are what matters. And self-awareness is an important skill for all children to develop, including those who have received an autism diagnosis. Accepting who you are as an individual is powerful.
Your child may have questions
Kids have a way of asking great questions – sometimes before we feel ready to answer them. So whatever you decide to do regarding sharing diagnosis details, it’s smart to make a plan about when you want to tell your child and how you will approach the conversation. That way, you won’t be caught unprepared.
I encourage parents in my practice to be as open as they can with their children, and that includes being honest about their diagnosis in an age-appropriate way. By showing your child that an autism diagnosis is nothing to be ashamed of, you’ll be preparing them to develop into a confident individual.
For additional resources, check out some more Notes from the Doc blog articles.