Conversing with Parents of Children with Autism – What Not to Say

Despite good intentions, it’s easy to accidentally say the wrong thing when talking to parents of a child with autism.  Autism is a sensitive subject, and saying something inappropriate can leave the parents feeling hurt or misunderstood.  While all circumstances are contextual, this list of what not to say is designed to give you a better understanding of how parents might feel when you speak about their child. While it is in no way prescriptive, it can help you get an idea of how to approach a conversation.

Don’t Say: “I’ve heard autism is caused by…”

Parents of children with autism are often bombarded with information about what causes autism. The fact remains that there is no clear evidence to suggest a single direct cause of autism. While there is a great deal of information available from various studies, suggesting causes is ineffectual and can leave parents feeling guilty about choices they have made regarding their child’s health.

Don’t Say: “I’ve heard you can cure autism by…” or “You should try this new remedy.”

There is currently no cure for autism. Suggesting that there is a cure can leave parents feeling hopeless for a number of reasons. They might be tired of hearing about so-called miracle cures, or they might be hurt that you have implied their child needs to be cured. For many people, autism is a part of their identity. Suggesting their child needs to be “cured” or “fixed” can be upsetting for parents to hear. If you have found some particularly interesting research, you could ask the parent if they’d be interested in hearing about it, giving them the option to say no.

Don’t Say: “Are they a genius?” or “Do they have a special talent?”

While some children on the autism spectrum are particularly gifted in a certain area, it’s not fair to stereotype children with autism.  All children need time and space to grow, regardless of their interests, talents and limitations. It’s more useful to ask how the child is doing, and let the parent respond in their own way.

Don’t Say: “You’d never guess that he/she has autism.”

Autism is not a condition that children or parents should be ashamed of. Suggesting that the child appears “normal” can be hurtful as it implies that it’s not okay for the child to be different.

Most importantly, remember that all conversations are contextual and therefore are based on the parent’s and your circumstances. First and foremost you are speaking to a parent who, like all parents, loves their child. Be patient, be kind and consider their feelings before speaking.

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