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What Not to Say to the Parents of Autistic Children

By Edited Oct 2, 2016 1 1

Autism. It's a confusing, mysterious, and sometimes frightening condition. According to the Centers for Disease Control, the odds of having a child with autism have increased to 1 in 88 in recent years.

Kids on the autism spectrum can have all kinds of abilities and disabilities, so it can be difficult to know how to interact with or help them. It can also be difficult to know how to interact with these kids’ families.

Here are a few things parents of kids with autism don't want to hear, and what you can say instead.

“I’m so sorry”

Some parents may have this knee-jerk response to parents of children with autism. It may seem natural to say this, because autism can be exhausting and frustrating for everyone involved.

But when your first response is "I'm sorry," you've fired a verbal bullet from a loaded gun. You're implying to the parent that:

  • Their child isn’t normal

  • Their child is a stressor and a pain

  • Their child will not have a good future (when what that means to you is, the future you envision for that child)

Instead, try saying, “I see. What does autism mean for you? How can I be the best friend possible to you and your child?”

“He just needs a spanking”

Some cases of autism entail emotional symptoms such as tantrums, meltdowns, or defiance, even in otherwise sweet kids of any age. The problem is that some parents see this and immediately blame the child’s family, especially if the child is a young adult.

It can be disconcerting, for example, to walk through a supermarket and see a sixteen-year-old boy undergoing a meltdown. But to react with disdain and remark “If you’d discipline him, this wouldn’t happen” is offensive and counterproductive.

Most parents know what their child needs in this situation and don’t need your interference. Only help if asked, and then do so positively.

“Is she mentally ill?”

A lot of people assume that autism is a mental illness because of the symptoms. They see a child stimming or engaging in echolalia and immediately assume there’s a mental imbalance behind the behavior.

But autism is not a mental illness. It is a sensory and processing disorder with a myriad of effects. If you’re not sure how something will affect a child with autism, politely ask the parent.

You can also visit relevant websites, such as the Asperger’s Women's Association or The New York Foundling for specific differences between autism and mental illness.

“But he doesn’t look/act autistic!”

This looks like a compliment. It’s a common response to a parent whose child is high-functioning or extremely intelligent, which many kids with autism are.

They may have Asperger's Syndrome or be on another high end of the spectrum. But the compliment is backhanded. When you say this, you’re revealing your own stereotypes; namely, that you expect people with autism to look and act un-teachable, ugly, or dumb.

Don’t say this to a parent, no matter how severe the autism is. Instead, always focus on the abilities, talents, and innate goodness of the child and his or her family.

Autism can be mysterious. It can be hard to know what to say to people who experience it, especially parents. But when you know what not to say, you can interact more easily.



May 13, 2014 6:25pm
Thanks so much for that last piece of advice! I wish I could make sure everyone we encounter reads it. It's not just the contrast between the higher functioning and the not-so-high-functioning that feels awkward: it's also the fact that children who are less obviously autistic often struggle to get the assistance they need. Their special needs are dismissed by the so-called experts, so it's no fun when other parents do it too.
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