Answering Your Child’s Questions About Classmates With Autism

Having friends with autism teaches us about individual differences and broadens our understanding of human interaction, says an expert at Gateway Pediatric Therapy.

One in 44 children is diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, making it likely that your child will share classrooms, sports teams, and other activities with a child with autism. Embrace this fact, says Roxanne Rayes, Board Certified Behavior Analyst and Vice President of Internal Development at Gateway Pediatric Therapy.

She contrasts autism awareness with autism acceptance.

“Autism awareness itself doesn’t improve the lives of those with autism or developmental differences. Increasing acceptance and valuing autism in all its forms is important. We should celebrate the differences of those around us,” Rayes says.

You may not know much about autism, and that’s OK. Now is the time to build understanding and answer your child’s questions about peers with autism.

Grace and normalization

Your child may describe a classmate who communicates differently, with a device or pictures, or who has repetitive hand or body movements. They may have sensitivities to lights, sounds, smells, even foods. “The major question might be how come they won’t talk to me?” says Rayes.

“Talk with your child about autism with grace and normalization. Autism is something their classmate was born with. It causes differences in the way their brain functions which means they may interact with the world differently,” Rayes says.

Explaining the concept of a spectrum disorder can be challenging, says Rayes, but tell your child that autism can have many different symptoms, interactions and behaviors. “Maybe the classmate has a helper for their assignments or they communicate nonverbally,” she says.

Children with autism may have different play preferences or may not yet know how to interact with others, which may look like they just want to play alone. “Suggest finding and offering a toy that is highly preferred to the child, and that may increase the chances of playing together,” Rayes suggests. “When there are gaps in social skills and learning, every day looks different, so encourage your child to try again on another day.”

Let your child know they may be able to just play alongside their classmate, and that can expose the child to what playing together can look like. It may even transition into offering each other toys and taking turns.

Making a new friend

Having a friend can make all the difference to a classmate with autism, so encourage your child to be kind and helpful. “If they need support, be that support for them. Invite them to join in activities. When the teacher says it’s time to clean up, help them clean up, too,” Rayes says.

Through kindness and patience, your child can help their new friend build social skills and learn routines, which can be more difficult for children with autism to learn independently. And, by helping another, they will gain a valuable skill of being accepting of others, Rayes says.

“When they’re in the real world, they will know what autism looks like and how to interact with understanding and compassion,” she says.

When you’re planning playdates, be sure to reach out to the child’s parents to ask if there is anything you can do to make them more comfortable in your home. “Do they have snack preferences? Any sensitivities you should know about? Little accommodations make a huge difference,” Rayes says. “There may be specific things you might be surprised to learn but having that conversation is the first step.”

Taking time now to learn more about autism with your child benefits everyone. Rayes suggests watching Xavier Riddle and the Secret Museum or Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood on PBS or reading My Brother Charlie by Holly Robinson Peete, Just Ask! by Sonia Sotomayor or A Friend for Henry by Jenn Bailey.

Gateway Pediatric Therapy offers best-in-class ABA therapy services at 13 locations in Michigan. Learn more at gatewaypediatrictherapy.com.

Claire Charlton
Claire Charlton
An enthusiastic storyteller, Claire Charlton focuses on delivering top client service as a content editor for Metro Parent. In her 20+ years of experience, she has written extensively on a variety of topics and is keen on new tech and podcast hosting. Claire has two grown kids and loves to read, run, camp, cycle and travel.

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