How Do I Explain to My Child That Her Little Friend Is Autistic?

Updated on April 05, 2009
L.R. asks from Salt Lake City, UT
17 answers

hello people,
my little girl plays with a an autistic friend that she absolutly loves and we have lots of fun when hes comes over to play, my question is this: he has autisum but how can i explain that to my 4yr. for example he'll pretend to be her puppy and they both get a kick out of it, but he'll be a puppy threw out theyre whole playdate and barks alot.. and when he leaves shes tries to mimic him and i dont know how to explain to her that he cannt help his countius actions(like barking)... any advice will be GREATLY appricated =)

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C.P.

answers from Provo on

Little kids accept each other unconditionally. It is not really a big thing. I grew up with special needs children and knew they were a little different but never really cared about anything else. I work on the special needs school bus and unless other children see them get of their special bus, they usually don't even notice a difference. I would just say that everyone has a different personality (if she even inquires about it.)

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C.H.

answers from Boise on

As a mother of two autistics this is something I struggle with a lot. Just tell her that everyone is different and thats what makes them so fun. Check with the mother to see if they use the word autism around their son(we do but some don't) If she does I would tell your daughter he has autism and that makes his brain work differently. When he does something that makes him happy he does it for a very long time, longer then you would sweety. This makes him happy and we all want to be happy. She will probably still imitate him but that is what they do at this age and since she is not trying to be mean I don't see the harm. You just have to watch for when it does become teasing, because all kids do that to.

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C.H.

answers from Denver on

My kids have a friend who was a crack & alcohol baby, and she has some unusual characteristics. I explained to them that "Mary"'s brain doesn't work properly, just like how their cousin was born with his eyes not working properly.

So I refer to the brain as an imperfect body part, and when the brain doesn't work exactly right, it can affect our behavior, or the way we think, or our senses (their friend can't feel hot and cold very well).

My kids have always understood that discussion, and they've been playing with this kid for six years, plus they have three cousins with other physical disabilities, so we pretty much just discuss it is another type of physical disability.

p.s. My dad is autistic, and he has a Pulitzer Prize. I wouldn't recommend having an autistic dad, but it's not the worst thing that ever happened to anyone, either.

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B.W.

answers from Pocatello on

I have to say, I wouldn't worry about it. Both my boys are autistic. they do some odd things. But as long as you don't make a big deal about it, neither will your little girl. If she askes then maybe tell her its a quirk. Which it is. unless she askes I wouldn't say anything. Because she is not worried about it.

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L.O.

answers from Provo on

My nephew is autistic and his parents were having trouble explaining to his friends why he acted the way he did so they created this video. It's very simple but helped them. They've put it on their blog (thats the only thing on there) so more people can see it. Feel free to check it out http://thepingrees.blogspot.com

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K.M.

answers from Denver on

If they're having fun and your daughter hasn't asked why he's a little different, my thought would be: Why even bring it up? Sounds like they are having a great time. . . enjoy!

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M.L.

answers from Colorado Springs on

A generation or so ago mothers would have been reluctant to let their daughters play with an autistic child. I honor you for taking a higher road.

I see not one but two challenges here. One is the friend's behavior, and the other is that your daughter has fun barking at you! What a good game! (And it gets a rise out of Mommy, too.)

Four-year-olds can't handle a lot of detailed explanation. You might tell her that "Willie" is a sweet boy and you're very glad he and your daughter are friends. But Willie happens to be made inside so that he does things over and over and over, and he just can't stop doing them the way she can.

If she wants to copy him in barking, she will need to be a *well-trained* dog and stop when you tell her! You could even give her a real dog command like "No bark!" - that might add to the game element. Keep your cool about it, and she'll eventually lose interest in the barking and go on to other things.

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D.P.

answers from Pueblo on

Kids are amazing! At some level she probably knows that he is different, but in her eyes it makes him special and fun (shouldn't we all be like that) anyways, I have a child with a disability and have found a website that helps. It explains that everyone has some kind of disability whether that makes them need glasses or a wheelchair or whatever. . . it is a natural part of life that we are all created differently. The website is disabilityisnatural.com and it is awesome!!! I would also encourage you to not make a huge deal of it. A parent of a child with autism once told me that the child's friends and siblings became his translators when he couldn't get the words out . . . because they understand him on a deeper level. I would just encourage you to not scare your child but to make it something she can understand. I also encourage you not to make a big deal of his behaviors even if she mimics them unless they're harmful. While it is probably very obvious to you that she is mimicing his behavior. . . she could just be enjoying the chance for the role to be reversed and her get the chance to play the doggie :) Good Luck!

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A.L.

answers from Denver on

L.:

It is going to be very hard to explain to your 4 year-old, what it means to be autistic. No matter what you say, she just might not understand, and you do not want to change their wonderful relationship. Maybe now isn't the time to try. Many children like to pretend, and many kids with autism just do not know how to pretend, so this is a great thing. Also, social interaction is hard for autistic children, so the fact that they play so well together is so wonderful. I wish I had better advice to help, but autism is so complex, I don't know what you would say without confusing your little girl. Have you asked her playmate's Mom for any suggestions?

Good luck!

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G.P.

answers from Boise on

I think that it is great that your daughter gets to learn about different people so early in life. I have to agree that unless she asks, why point it out? If she does ask, or is teasing or making fun of him, then she deserves the truth. Do you have a problem with the barking, or is it just a game for her? I would say let her enjoy her friend. I'm sure that she notices more than you realize.

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R.M.

answers from Salt Lake City on

I'm not sure it's a big deal that she continues to mimic him after he's gone. As long as she's not too loud I would let her do it. I think it's quite normal for young children, particularly little girls to mimic animals. My daughter was forever a cat, a dog, a horse, a white tiger... all the way up through first grade when she started growing out of it. You can tell the "doggy" to be quiet or to "whisper" and children usually will make their play quieter. At least mine did. I'm not sure a four year old has the ability to understand the autistic part of this.

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T.W.

answers from Denver on

Hats off to you! I think the BEST thing you can do for your children is make sure they are exposed to all types of people from birth on. This will help them no only handle all kinds of situations when they are older but also teach them compassion and what true friendship is all about.

All three of my kids handle, deal and question things differently and this is a very important thing to remember. You know your daughter and how she understands things. Honesty is the best policy but too much information is just confusing. If she asked tell her he thinks differently but is the same friend and anyone else.

I have noticed with all my children and their friends that over-exposure to ANY of them, problems or not, can create issues too. So be sure you help her cultivate all sorts of friendships and play dates so she can enjoy experiences with all sorts of people.

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D.K.

answers from Denver on

Why do you need to explain that to her? Why is it a problem for her to mimic? I think kids are amazing, they don't see differences and those differences shouldn't be pointed out to them unless they have questions.
My kids did the pretending to be animal thing for a long time, cracked each other up. It may have gotten annoying but I let it go through it's course as it is truly normal behavior.
Kids mimic regardless if they are autistic or not. I just don't see a need to ruin or put an weird topic upon their sweet and innocent friendship. Kids know if there is a difference and have the amazing ability to see past that and be accepting. You pointing it out could cause confusion for your daughter. If she doesn't ask about it, why say something, she is so young.
I grew up with a mentally disabled brother, never thought twice about treating him any differently then a little brother, my mom never pointed out his differences as much as that God makes us all in different packages and there were just some things he could not do that I could. She reminded me that everyone has talents of their own making.

If my friends came over and I said anything to them, they were very much put in an awkward and uncomfortable position. If I hadn't said anything I doubt they would have noticed much as he seemed clearly normal, just behing developmentally and mentally on things.
Let them be kids!

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C.S.

answers from Denver on

This is a very dear subject to me. My little brother (who is now 13) has autism and he has been a tremendous force in my life, and has made me so much more aware of things.

I would say that at this point, the friend is probably starting to realize that there's something "different" about him and is becoming more aware of it. Not treating him like something is "wrong" with him while he's over will mean a lot to him. I had never realized before how frustrating it is for the child to really want to be just like the other kids, and not understanding why they're different.

As far as explaining it to your daughter, keep it fairly simple at this age, if you feel like you need to explain it at all. We just told my son (who is 5) that everybody's brain works differently and we all have our own ways of seeing things and doing things. "Play time is fun, but when (Benny)goes home, it's time to settle back down a little and be (Ollie) again." At least, that's what works with my son.

I've seen my brother picked on a lot and bullied. I just really would like to beg that it not be overly explained as it being something "wrong" with him. Yes, he functions WAY differently. But, he knows it instantly when he's being treated differently because of it, and I've seen so many tears from my little brother that could have been spared.

That's my (very lengthy) two cents. Good luck!

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C.N.

answers from Salt Lake City on

L.,

Not even adults understand about autism really, so how can you explain it to a 4 year old. While I was growing up I had an interesting experience. My cousin, who is mentally challenged, and I were playing with some younger children. They were really enjoying being with my cousin and his child-like ways. After awhile they went to talk to their parents. When they returned they had questions about my cousin and why he was different. I believe something was said by the parents. What was an enjoyable experience turned into worry and concern with those children.

My advice is not to focus on autism. Focus on the gifts that this dear friend brings to the relationship. Talk to your daughter about how she feels.

With my whole heart, C.

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E.T.

answers from Pocatello on

I think if your daughter has no problems with her friend then why should you point out that he's "different" than her? Children with autism just need a different world to grow up in, they are super sensitive kids who are here to change the way we think and do things. It's totally normal for a 4 yr old to pretend that they're animals. I would say don't sweat it!

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K.S.

answers from Denver on

How awesome that you didn't shy away from the opportunity of this friendship for you daughter. They will both be richer for it.

I understand why people think you don't need to bring it up, but I disagree.

If they continue to be friends, things will likely come up that warrant explanation. Your daughter won't want or need a complicated explanation, but just an understanding that he sometimes thinks and acts different than her. As all autistic kids are different, you know best how to explain what he can do and what he can't do.

I do agree that you don't need to make it a big, serious deal. I think just in the course of conversation it would be helpful to explain that all people are different. This way you've laid the foundation and can build on over time as needed.

I would also maybe speak to his parents if something comes up. They would be the best resource and probably have a good handle on the simplest explanation of anything that comes up.

The less of an issue you make it, the more it will be routine to your daughter.

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