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10 Things You Should Never Say to the Parent of a Child With Autism

Tips from the parent of an autistic child

Tips from the parent of an autistic child

#1 He Doesn't Look Autistic

Ok, I admit, the first reaction I have to this statement is, "And you don't look ignorant." This is one of those statements that is said by an uneducated person that is usually trying to sound supportive. Or by a truly ignorant person that actually believes that autism has a 'look.' Regardless, it is not something you should say at all, especially to the child's parent!

I do not pretend to understand why many people assume that a child on the autism spectrum should have some sort of physical defect to prove that they have a neurological condition. I assume it has something to do with the lingering assumption in the early 20th century that compared autism with schizophrenia in the sense that people with autism live in a fantasy world that significantly differs from reality. And while this is still true for some people with autism, it is more of an exception rather than the rule. There is no reason to search the child for defects that prove they have autism.

#2 Oh No, I'm Sorry!

Again, I am assuming this is usually said in a supportive tone to show that someone feels for the parent's situation. But really, just don't. There is no reason to say you are sorry for someone's child. This is their child, and they love that child with everything they are made of. Although sometimes things can get stressful, out of control, and overwhelming, that is still their little bundle of joy, and they do not regret being their parent.

Some situations where saying sorry is acceptable and not offensive could be when they tell you they cannot meet for lunch because the child is having a melt-down. Or maybe they have to cut a visit short because the child is getting restless or needs a more comfortable atmosphere. Or even when the parent is venting about a crazy day they had. These are acceptable times to show your support with an "I'm sorry you had a rough day". But giving a generalized apology for the way their child's brain functions is just not comforting to any parent, especially an autism parent.

#3 Ohhhhh…What Can He Do?

This is just rude, and really, what is a parent supposed to say to this, "Well, he can't talk, but we are working on getting him to balance a biscuit on his nose"...? Come on now, what do you expect from a statement like that? He is a child, not a circus clown. Autism or otherwise, parents typically teach their kids the same basics. It is true that a child with autism may not fully leave diapers until a few years after neuro-typical children. And it is also true that children with autism are behind in other major milestones like crawling, walking and speaking their first words. Some children with autism will never speak at all or only use a few words.

Many people also believe that children with autism have some sort of special talent, and this is usually true to a degree. Children with autism tend to have many shortcomings when it comes to typical education, the ability to stay still or focus, and difficulty comprehending certain things. But one thing they do not lack is a sense of intrigue.

While your child is watching and re-watching Frozen or Moana 100 times before they get sick of it, a child with autism is watching and re-watching and analyzing and memorizing every single scene so they can play it over in their minds while they are eating, sleeping and even when they are already watching it. While your child is relaxing to their favorite music album playing, a child with autism is focusing so hard on each word and chord, so hard that they memorize the song the first time through.

Children with autism tend to have special talents just like every other child in the world, but theirs tend to come from a different place and engaged through repetitiveness, compulsion and sometimes even obsession.

#4 You Are So Great to Care for a Special Needs Child

Or worse, "It's too bad you had to put your life on hold." This one shouldn't even have to be explained, but obviously, it does, or it wouldn't be on this list. Those remarks are absolutely repulsive to any parent of a special needs child, autism or otherwise. What are these people thinking?

It truly makes you wonder what they would do if their child was diagnosed with any kind of disability. Would you just walk away? One would hope that this question would come from someone that has never known the love for their own child, and hopefully, once they finally have a child, they would understand that there is no way to just walk away from that child, no matter what.

#5 Have You Tried a Cure?

If you go online, there are a thousand different "breakthrough cures" for a thousand different ailments. There are just as many supposed "cures" for autism. Every parent goes on the same path when their child is diagnosed with autism; first, they wonder if it was something that they did, and then they start searching for the cure. And every parent ends up at the same point when they realize that there is no cure for autism.

There are many different treatments for issues associated with autism, and many of them work great depending on the child. But there is no way that some snake oil is going to cure a child of autism. There are even autism parents that claim that they have cured their children with many different treatments, but in reality, all they have done is treat the symptoms. Some people will swear up and down that their child once had autism and now they don't; these people are still in denial. The question you need to ask is, if this miracle drug or treatment was to stop today, how would the child be tomorrow or in a few days? Would they still be "cured" or would their symptoms come back?

Better yet, why would you even ask a parent this question? Trust that the parent has looked over every possible option and treatment to find what works best for the child. Unless the parent opens up a conversation about their child's mental health trials, just stay off the topic.

#6 My Child Has Meltdowns Too, That Is Normal for Children

There is a huge difference between a meltdown and a temper tantrum. This cannot be stressed enough. A child with autism has both meltdowns and tantrums; a neuro-typical child has tantrums, unless there are other mental health issues involved.

A temper tantrum is the result of a child not getting what they want or being irritated with something, and they throw a fit about it in an attempt to get what they want or show how they feel. Most times, if the child ends up getting what they want, they will stop. Even if they do not get what they want, they can choose to stop at any time, whether they decide to is up to them.

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A meltdown is a reaction that cannot be controlled; it can happen in any situation. It isn't just when the child hears the word no; it can be as simple as the sun going behind a cloud, not having the immediate attention of someone they wish to communicate with or having a sensory overload. When a child with autism goes into meltdown mode, they are unable to stop. They are unable to make a coherent decision and unable to regain their senses until their mind can regain focus which is difficult and sometimes impossible until they fall asleep or find something to stimulate certain senses.

Although autism parents are not looking for special treatment or attention, they acknowledge that parenting is difficult all around. If it were possible to wave a cookie in the air and make the child stop, believe that they would wave that cookie with everything they had. It is just a slap in the face to have a meltdown compared to a tantrum.

#7 Autism Is an Excuse for Bad Behaviors

Telling someone that they are trying to use autism as an excuse for bad behavior is one of the most appalling and horrifying things you can say to an autism parent. Just a quick Google search of "Autism is not an excuse for bad behavior" shows that there is no shortage of people who truly believe this.

While there are always those parents who tend to spoil their child more than they should, most of the time, parents can recognize when a child is misbehaving and when a child is having a normal autism reaction to something. One of the most difficult parts of being an autism parent is navigating when to redirect, when to discipline and when you should show no reaction.

Any parent knows that unsolicited parenting advice is annoying as it is; imagine having that same unsolicited advice from someone basically saying that you are the reason for the problem. It is never appreciated and can often leave the parent feeling horrible and questioning themselves even more than typical parents already do.

#8 Did You Vaccinate Him?

Or even worse, "That's why I don't vaccinate my child."

There are probably just as many parents out there that believe vaccines cause autism as there are parents that do not. For every study that says they do, there are 100 more that say they do not. Science has shown that vaccines as a whole do not cause autism. There may be certain chemicals that cause a reaction that leaves similar symptoms as autism, whether temporary or permanent. But there is no concrete proof that states autism is caused by vaccines.

With that being said, there is never a cause to bring vaccines up to an autism parent; it is just rude and, quite frankly, none of your damn business. While you are claiming that you are "saving your children from autism" by not having them vaccinated, you are also risking their lives and the lives of people around them every single day by welcoming diseases that science has fought against and won. And regardless of which way you swing on the vaccine debate, it is just another thing that makes a parent feel like they are to blame or feel like you are judging them, so just don't.

#9 You Should Teach Them Some Manners

Or, they just need some discipline. This is right up there with the bad behavior comment. As previously stated, autism parents are teaching their children the same things neuro-typical parents are teaching their children. It may take a lot longer, but trust they are covering the same issues.

Of course, sometimes manners are just not an easy concept to grasp. You cannot expect a non-verbal child to say thank you and give a nod and a smile when they are expected to. Just like you cannot expect a parent to not let their child begin eating until they are sitting in the correct position and using the appropriate utensils if they cannot get their child to eat regularly.

Children with autism have many symptoms that need to be worked around. Some children refuse to eat because of texture or inability to understand that is what they need to feel full and happy. Some children are non-verbal and refuse any sort of eye contact. And other children cannot stay still no matter what they are doing. They may flap their arms, howl or laugh at inappropriate times, it is called stimming or stimulating, and it is not necessarily a choice.

#10 Are You Sure?

Going through an autism diagnosis can take months and even years; it is not as if the child simply went to the doctor one day and came home with an autism diagnosis. In many situations, they will see multiple doctors and specialists before they are diagnosed. So yes, when a parent tells you that their child has been diagnosed with autism, they are sure. Most parents won't even mention it until after they have had time to adjust and accept it.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.


Jon on July 22, 2017:

Yup, had someone say "You don't LOOK autistic" to me in a bar a few weeks ago.


Amy from Darlington, England on July 21, 2017:

I have had number one said about me recently at work. I hate having to explain it but still end up doing so. My family are some of the lucky ones. Yes we are an autistic family all at the high functioning end but we can get on with normal lives for the most part. We all have our talents and with my eldest daughter I let her play to her strengths and will help her work on her weaknesses.

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