People who don’t have firsthand experience with children on the spectrum often mean well, but their actions and words may come across as insensitive.
Parents have enough on their plate taking care of their special needs children, the last thing they need is to get hurt or upset by someone who misspoke.
If you know a parent affected by autism and want to offer support, here are ways you should and shouldn’t ask about their child.
Contrary to how movies portray autism, most people on the spectrum don’t have extraordinary artistic and musical gifts. In fact, only around 10% of them do.
Do ask: “How’s your child doing?”
Just like how you would ask a parent with a typical child, it’s okay to ask the parent of a child on the spectrum this. They can give updates on their child’s treatment or education.
This may sound like a compliment but parents would not appreciate it. Also, they prefer the word “typical” or “neuro-typical” over the word “normal.”
Do say: “Your child is cute.”
No need to add qualifiers or mention the child’s autism, just compliment them like you would any typical child.
This is easy for someone who doesn’t have to care for a special needs child to say and is severely lacking in empathy. It’s condescending and unhelpful. Unless you’ve been through the exact same thing, you shouldn’t offer a different perspective.
Do ask: “How can I help?”
Sometimes the best way to help is to just listen. Parents mostly just need to vent to feel better about a difficult day or week. Another way is to offer practical help such as volunteering to do errands or other daily responsibilities.
Unless you yourself have a child with autism, no, you do not know exactly what these parents are going through.
Do say: “I can’t imagine what you’re going through. It must be hard.”
Simply acknowledging and validating their experience is honest and heartfelt.
Despite research showing a higher incidence of autism among younger siblings of children with autism, this is not an appropriate question to ask. It’s also more acceptable to call children on the spectrum as “children with autism” rather than “autistic children.”
Do ask: “Do you have other children?”
Again, however you would ask a parent of typical children, is how you should ask a parent of a child with autism.
Best believe parents of children with autism have done their research and more. It’s their child so they want to know the best treatment available. Do not offer unsolicited advice, whether it’s something you just heard from TV, social media, a news article, etc.
Do say: “I’ve been doing research, I can share it if you’d like.”
This gives them the option to hear you out or politely decline. If it’s the latter, don’t be offended because it’s not about you.
Autism can be extremely difficult to live with, depending where a child is on the spectrum. Parents don’t look for treatment for their children because they are ashamed of them or cannot accept them. It’s to give them every opportunity to live a full life.
Do ask: “What treatment program is your child on?”
It’s okay to ask but take cues from the parents whether or not they would like to speak about their child’s treatment plan.
Parents with typical children can’t help but focus on their child’s wellbeing and with autism, it is no different. This question can get exasperating because no matter how well-meaning, it just doesn’t come from a place of understanding.
Do say: “Whenever you feel like taking time for yourself, I’d love to help.”
If they’re open to it and have the time, plan a nice, relaxing or fun time for them. Or you can also offer to babysit but only if you’re knowledgeable about caring for a child with autism and if the child is comfortable with you.
First off, this is not true. There is no evidence to suggest divorce rates are higher for parents with children with autism. Second, it is unhelpful. Of course parenting a special needs child puts additional stress on a marriage, but this is not the way to acknowledge that.
Do say: “It must be hard but you guys look like a great team.”
Simple and encouraging.
There is no known single cause for autism, only theories that revolve around heredity, genetics, and environmental factors. Don’t stress parents out by forcing them to try and answer this.
Do say: nothing.
There is no nicer alternative to this question. Simply do not ask it because it’s a sensitive subject, often a cause for guilt in parents.
Ultimately, it’s okay to ask parents questions as long as you always keep empathy, sensitivity, and kindness in mind. Simple words of encouragement are good and sometimes saying nothing and just listening is best.