One face of autism

Children with autism look like normal kids.

Autism is an invisible disability, and parents of affected children often hesitate to ask for the accommodations their children need because a child with autism looks just like every other kid . . . until their behavior attracts attention. Despite awareness efforts, most people would assume that a child that’s bouncing uncontrollably – or worse, smacking his brother’s head over and over – is simply misbehaving (and maybe feeling the effects of too much sugar). Over the next several weeks, I’ll be writing a series of posts that I hope will help you understand what autism looks like, and give you some techniques for handling the situation gracefully when you do encounter a child (or an adult!) with autism in your travels.

I asked several parents of children with autism what they wish other parents knew about their children’t disorders. The answers I got were deeply heartfelt, and in some cases showed the scars of interactions with well-meaning but misinformed strangers.

“Use words!”

I wish other parents/people knew that kids with autism DO want to be with other people and that they ARE social beings.  It’s just that the rest of the world goes too fast for them to keep up, and they do what any sane person would do–try to get a break to catch their breath.

One of the key symptoms of autism is difficulty in communicating. Some children with autism do not use verbal language, while others do speak but with difficulty. Some children with autism have no trouble getting the words out, they just don’t pick up on the social cues that tell them when to stop talking! As the saying goes, if you’ve met one child with autism, you’ve met one child with autism.

What you can do:

When you are in a ride queue, on a bus, or shopping in a gift shop and a child comes up and starts telling you the history of Space Mountain or regales you with technical facts about the type of gearing used to propel the roller coaster, simply listen and engage in the conversation. Odds are, this is the most important information in that person’s world, and he’s sharing it with you – because clearly, it’s fascinating and you must be interested! His parents may be embarrassed because their child is breaking a social rule (again) by talking to a complete stranger. The child, however, is doing his best to be friendly! Be patient while he chooses his words.

I will never forget the two ladies who spent a bus ride back to the resort engaging my boys in a conversation about their homeschooling experiences, and their trip so far. I doubt they really cared about the list of transportation devices the boys had ridden that week, but the boys never knew that. I was so grateful to them!

Have you found yourself in this type of situation? How did you handle it? (And are you now an expert on the inner workings of Space Mountain or the Disneyland rail system?)

For future posts in this series, what would you like to know about interacting with children with autism at Disney – or anywhere else?