Parents of autistic children have often heard the full gamut of thoughtless comments concerning their children. This is usually due to people not being well educated enough on the subject of autism. Alternatively, they fall back to using age old stereotypes, which do not serve people of any specific group. The majority of us can recall a time when someone has said something insensitive to us and how it made us feel. Whilst some remarks come from a good place, there is always time for the wider community to improve their understanding.
With that in mind, here are some examples of the things you should not say to the parent of an autistic child.
“Everyone is a little autistic”
Actually, everyone is not a little autistic. People may have autistic traits, such as wanting to be alone, not liking bright lights and noises, or enjoying a set routine, but it does not make them an autistic person. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, there are 160 000 autistic people in Australia. That’s one in every 150 people. Their differences are diagnosed by a trained health professional. It is insensitive to autistic people, to anecdotally diagnose yourself as such.
“You must be like Rain Man”
The 1988 movie, Rain Man, featuring Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise, was based on an autistic savant. A savant is a person who has rare abilities usually related to memory. This was one of the first times an autistic person was a main character in a film. For older generations, this may be why they associate autism with this stereotype. The autistic spectrum is vast. To box an autistic person into a specific stereotype at any place on the spectrum is not appropriate. Just as you should not assume a person who is tall is a great basketball player, you cannot assume that an autistic person will be a savant.
“They seem so normal”
What is normal? Just as ‘normal’ covers a broad spectrum, so does autism, and it is not linear. Each autistic person may have particular strengths and needs. They may have a capable working memory but find executive functioning a challenge. A person’s autism may be invisible to you but that does not mean it does not exist. If you judge a person from the one small moment you interact with them, you will not gain an adequate representation of them. Commenting on someone relating to one specific aspect of their being is ungenerous. An individual is so much more than one thing.
“I am so sorry. How devastating!”
An autism diagnosis is not something to be ashamed or upset about. Children with autism can go on to live full and happy lives. Imagine the message you are sending the parent when you make a comment like that? Or to the child, if you say it in front of them? You are not aware of the complete journey of the parent and their child. Whilst all our children have their challenges, neurodivergent or not, we still love them for all that they are.
“No, they are not. My cousin’s uncle has an autistic son and they are nothing like that”
There is an expression that if you have met one autistic person, then you have met one autistic person. Just like non-neurodivergent people, autistic people are all wonderfully unique in their own way. No two are exactly alike. Just because you have met one autistic person, that doesn’t mean you know what every autistic person is like.
What can I say?
Whilst you may be wondering what you can say to parents of an autistic child, it is quite simple. Simply interact with them just as you would with parents of non-neurodivergent children. And if someone shares that their child is autistic with you, follow their lead. A simple, ‘Okay’ might suffice if it is with a stranger in the supermarket. For friends and family, let them know you are there for them and focus on listening rather than commenting or passing judgement.