Autism,  Neurodiversity

12 Things You Should NEVER SAY to the Parent of an Autistic Child…and What You SHOULD SAY Instead.

Over the past year, I’ve received many questions and comments from friends, family, neighbors and coworkers about autism and my son. Most of them are curious and genuinely want to know more about our life and how they can help (more on that in another post). A few don’t understand and don’t really care to. And then there was one comment that got my blood boiling.

I choose to believe that the majority of people have their hearts in the right place, but don’t know how to ask questions about autism for fear of causing offense, or they lack the education to understand that their comment is offensive. I’ve rounded up the ones that I’ve heard the most (and the one that made me see red) and what I’d prefer that people say instead. Read on to see if you have heard these, too!

Don’t Say These Things to Parents of Autistic Children (Say These Instead):

  1. “I’m sorry.” When I’ve received this comment, the intent behind it isn’t negative. It’s trying to recognize that this is a life changing event for you as a parent and you must be experiencing an absolute stew of conflicting emotions. However, there’s nothing to apologize for-autism is not a disease like cancer, it’s part of the fabric of a person’s being. You wouldn’t tell someone that you’re sorry because their hair is brown or that they’re an introvert, would you? Of course not. If you’d like to show support and acknowledge the emotions, say “That’s pretty big news. How are you feeling about it?”
  2. “How did he get it?” Variations of this include “catching it” or “how is it spread.” This one leaves a bit of a sour taste in my mouth, to be honest. Autism is not a virus or a bacterial infection, rather it’s a type of “wiring” in the brain that causes autistic people to experience the world differently than neurotypical people (bonus piece of advice-don’t say “normal.” No one is normal). I suggest using “I don’t know much about autism. Can you explain it to me?” instead.
  3. “Can it be cured?” This is a tricky one, and there’s a ton of social landmines around this topic. I believe that when people ask this, they’re acknowledging that you and your child will be facing challenges that many families do not, and is there a way to make it better. It’s coming from a place of concern, not negativity. Try using the phrase above in #2 instead.
  4. “He’ll grow out of it.” Bless their hearts, they’re trying to give the parent hope. Autism is not a phase (like tractors or dolls), it’s how their body works. You wouldn’t tell a parent that their child would grow out of blue eyes, would you? No, you wouldn’t. I don’t have a good replacement for this one-just don’t say it.
  5. “All kids do that.” The intent behind this one isn’t always clear. Sometimes people say it to try to “normalize” something your kid does to ease your concerns, other times they think you’re overreacting. I’ve gotten both. Please don’t say this-it’s invalidating and insensitive. Use this as an opportunity to educate yourself and say “How is (insert thing here) different for Eric than other kids?”
  6. “He doesn’t look autistic.” I wish this one wasn’t so common, but it is. Autism doesn’t have a “look,” and many times when people say this they’re referring to individuals who don’t communicate verbally and self-regulate by stimming in a way that’s noticeable. I’ll say it again-autism is a spectrum and each person experiences it differently. This is another one you just shouldn’t say.
  7. “But he’s high functioning.” Repeat after me-autism is a spectrum and each person experiences it differently. Some people “mask” to blend into society (Eric did this unconsciously, which was part of the reason it took us so long to get a diagnosis) and hide their differences. Autism also doesn’t mean unintelligent! If you don’t actually care about the person you’re speaking with, don’t say anything. If you do care, you could ask “What are some of the challenges that he experiences?”
  8. “What’s he gifted at?” This one is influenced by the way that autism has been portrayed in the media (Rainman, The Good Doctor, The Accountant) and it’s a stereotype that all autistic individuals are savants at something. Not true. However, there is a positive question that you can replace this with, and it’s the same thing you’d ask any parent about their child (because autistic children are still children, first and foremost)-“What’s Eric interested in?”
  9. Will he ever go to college?” Or get a job, move out, drive etc. We wish we had a crystal ball that could show us our child’s future, but I think all parents do. Honestly, asking the parent of any seven year old if they’re going to college is a little silly, if you think about it. It’s more appropriate to ask “What do you have to do next?”
  10. “I don’t know how you do itor the ever-popular “God doesn’t give us more than we can handle.” I don’t like this one because it implies that my child is a burden, even if it isn’t meant to be negative. I’d much rather hear “You’re a great mom.”
  11. “Have you tried (a gluten-free diet, removing red 40 dye, supplements, etc.)?” Don’t say this or anything like it; it implies that autism can be “fixed.” There are various types of therapies that children may take part in to help them learn skills that don’t come as naturally to them as others, but we’re not trying to fix them. I recommend “Are there supports or accommodations that you’ve found helpful?”

And finally, #12. A family member whom I do not have a close relationship with sent me this comment on social media-“Ashley, I heard about Eric. I am so sorry this is happening to you. I know you are strong and that you will overcome this. My neighbor’s son had autism and it was terrible. She was able to cure him of the autism by developing her own method of training. She wrote a book and offers a course online for parents to cure their children as well. Here is her website, and I wish you luck.” Needless to say, I deleted that comment.

I believe that the people who take the time to ask me questions truly do care and want to learn more, so I make the effort to give grace when they may not choose the words that I’d prefer (except for #12). I hope you found this list helpful, whether you’re a parent fielding the questions or a you’re trying to figure out how to ask your friend or family member about their child. Would you add anything? How do you handle questions about autism? Share in the comments below!

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