As recent events have reignited the Black Lives Matter movement and shone a light on America’s longstanding and continued problem with racism, it’s more important than ever to have frank, open discussions with our children about issues of race and inequality. For parents of children with Autism Spectrum Disorder, however, having these conversations can be extra challenging and it can be difficult to even know where to start.
Here, we’ve compiled some tips for talking about racism with a child with ASD.
1. Keep the conversation as simple and focused as possible.
Racism and inequality are complex, nuanced issues that are difficult for any child to fully take in all at once. Really addressing complicated and important topics like these takes time and will require multiple talks and ongoing conversations. This is especially true for children with ASD.
Take the time to formulate a plan before you begin the process of addressing racism and inequality (or similarly complex topics) with a child who is on the spectrum. Break down the different points you’d like to make and plan on having a separate discussion—or maybe even multiple discussions—to address each one. It can be really tough for people with ASD to focus when they’re presented with too much to process at once. Avoid information overload by focusing each individual conversation on a specific point.
In addition to simplifying the topic of the conversation, do your best to simplify your own communication during the talk. Use simple language, don’t over-explain, and speak slowly and clearly. Identify the most important keywords related to the topic at hand and repeat them throughout the talk to drive them home.
2. Ask questions—but be mindful about how you ask them.
When discussing a difficult topic like racism with any child, it’s important to ask questions to get them engaged with the conversation and to encourage curiosity and self-directed education (habits that will serve them well as they continue to grapple with these subjects throughout their lives). To the same end, it’s important to allow time for the child to ask their own questions about racism and inequality at this time.
For an autisitic child, however, being asked too many questions can be overwhelming and cause them to shut down or act out. So, be thoughtful about the questions you ask and limit them to the most important questions for the topic at hand. It can also be helpful to try to structure questions in less open-ended ways, which will make them easier for a child with ASD to process and answer.
3. Pick the right time and place for the conversation.
Set yourself and your child up for success as much as possible by being mindful of the time and place you choose to have a difficult conversation. Try not to disrupt your child’s routine if at all possible and avoid having conversations like these in crowded, loud, or otherwise distracting places.
4. Be mindful of your language.
When we discuss difficult topics, many of us have a tendency to couch them in euphemisms or talk around the heart of the issue. These aren’t viable options when it comes to discussing these issues with a child with ASD. People with ASD tend to struggle with euphemisms, analogies, and figures of speech, so it’s important to avoid these crutches in general, but even more so when you’re dealing with important topics like racism and inequality.
5. Be Patient.
This one is probably obvious to anyone with experience interacting with an autistic child, but it’s the most important rule to any attempt at communication with a person with ASD. Be patient. Don’t get frustrated or offended if your child lashes out, changes the subject, or can’t focus. Regroup and try again another time. These conversations will require effort and ongoing work—but that’s true for everyone, not just children and not just people on the spectrum.