5+ things you should never say to autistic kids

Some words can be really hurtful to an autistic kid, and not that helpful either. Here’s some phrases you should never say to autistic kids.

If only you could behave better / Stop misbehaving.

This was a common phrase our son heard from teachers when he started school, both before and after an autism diagnosis. His actions were interpreted as misbehaviour. Actually, he was seeking sensory input (by moving around in class), or avoiding sensory overload (like loud noises or other people).

Many times, when an autistic person is doing something, it’s not a misbehaviour, but them regulating their environment. Also, many rules don’t make sense to neurodivergent brains. Why would you have times when you can’t eat, even if you’re hungry (in class)? Why do you get told off for waiting for your turn on the swing and then having a go after the bell?

Never say: But you’re high functioning…

All autistic profiles are different. Some people will have an intellectual disability. Others may be non-verbal. Some people will have obsessive interests. Some people will have low self-care skills. Others may have high memory ability. While others will have difficulty in social interaction. The profile and degree of impact will differ for each person.

Being told you’re a “high functioning autistic” is ignoring the challenges that may be hidden. Both our children have average intelligence. But they have very low muscle tone, low self-care skills like toileting, feeding, dressing, and have poor social interactions. Sometimes they don’t get all the support they need because their challenges are “hidden” by their NAPLAN results that say “normal – do not worry”.

Shut up and stop crying.

When in the middle of a meltdown or moment of emotional dysregulation, being told to “shut up and stop crying” is hardly helpful.

Firstly, they can’t stop. They need help regulating. They need an adult to help them calm down through a cuddle or a sensory activity. Co-regulating with an adult that understands is going to help. An adult standing over them telling them to stop isn’t going to teach them skills to regulate their emotions and senses.

Secondly, talking (or yelling) isn’t going to be helpful in this moment. When the primitive brain takes over, words can’t get through. Sensory input is needed to calm down first. Then the language centre can kick in. Trying to talk, reason, or explain with a lecture is only going to annoy someone at this time.

If you don’t do … you’re going to get punished.

One of the least effective ways of communicating with your child – using threats and punishments to get your way.

Again, an autistic child may not have control over their emotions or actions. They may be seeking support for regulation, understanding sensory overload, or dealing with transitions. Punishing their confusion is not going to teach long-term skills. It’s also more likely to backfire on you – autistic kids aren’t the most compliant. They are more likely to respond with a larger outburst of emotion than to comply and respond to your threat.

If you get enough therapy or medication, will the autism go away and be cured?

This is a real one that another parent asked of their autistic child. Autism is a neurological condition. It is life-long and will not be cured with drugs. Autism will not go away, although you may develop strategies to help you cope better over time. It’s time to accept that autism is for life, and you cannot cure it or make it go away.

Don’t say: Just put headphones on and you’ll be able to fit in.

This comment is dismissive of the neurodiversity present. It assumes that everyone should conform to what is comfortable for neuro-typical minds. Making autistic people adapt and fit in to the “standard” is damaging and non-inclusive. How about we think about how to make all environments more inclusive rather than making “disabled” people adapt?

Instead, try to say these affirming comments to autistic kids

  • Acknowledge emotions – you look like you’re frustrated.
  • You’re unique and beautiful as you are
  • I love you for you
  • Can I give you a hug?
  • How can I make you more comfortable?
  • Let’s work together to help you feel confident
  • You’re a great problem solver.
  • I believe in you.
  • and any of the 50 positive self-talk statements here

How to talk so autistic kids listen

Do you feel like your kids never listen to you? You end up yelling and nagging them all the time then hate yourself for it. You resort to threats and bribes to get compliance, when really you want to raise kids who can self-regulate and be kind and confident.

Kids often get frustrated. Maybe

  • there’s not enough time and they hate being rushed.
  • they aren’t able to do a task like put shoes on, do up buttons, or put on a coat.
  • they don’t know what they’re feeling but they are hungry, tired, need the toilet or are thirsty.
  • they are engaged in a fun activity and don’t want to stop.

Rather than threatening “you’ll go to your room if you don’t..” or bribing “you’ll get a chocolate if you…” try:

  • Giving choices (would you like rice bubbles or cornflakes for breakfast?)
  • Ask them a question (where are your shoes? What do we need to do next?)
  • Use one word (socks. shoes.)
  • Whisper or sing an instruction (put shoes on)
  • Writing a note (‘carry me to the car’ note on school bag)

These hints on how to talk come from the book How to talk so kids will listen and listen so kids will talk by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish. While the book is for kids in general, it works really well with autistic kids too.

Conclusion: never say to autistic kids

A little bit of understanding goes a long way. Show you understand, or are at least being patient and trying to understand a different perspective. Be positive and supportive.

Check out the 50 positive self-talk statements to download here.

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