Explaining Autism to My Son

"Why does he like little kid toys?"

This was the question from my son Elijah, as we brought a Cars toy to the cash register, to purchase for a friend. The kicker? That friend is a teenage boy, not who you would normally think would be interested in "little kid" stuff. But this boy is different. He likes Cars, Transformers, Lego, Batman, and Star Wars, and not just the movies, but the toys, too.

What makes him different than most teenagers? He has high-functioning autism.

Our kids know a few children who fall in various places along the autism spectrum disorder -- one in the family (who also is a teenager), a few from Grace Church, and several other friends. Therefore, this Q&A that we had walking through the mall was not the first time we talked about autism, but merely continuing a much bigger conversation.

Here are some basic principles that my son and I discussed about:
  • For people who have autism, their brains work a little differently. Not wrong or right, just different.
  • There are some things this boy is better at (like building toys) and some things he's not as good at (like reading your emotions). 
  • Since he's good at some things, we can engage and encourage him in those, like by playing Lego and Cars. 
  • We can also intentionally engage and help him in areas that he's not good at. For example, since he's not as good at understanding your emotions, we need to tell him specifically when you like something, or explain when something displeases you.

We kept walking as we talked, and Elijah was soaking it all in. He thought for a moment, and then said, "So, with autism, it's not that anything is wrong. Like, there is nothing that needs to be treated or fixed. Right?"

"Exactly," I replied, "It's just another way that God made us different. He created, loves, and sent His Son to die for each one of us."

How have you talked with children about other folks who have "special needs," like autism?

[Edit: A few weeks after we gave him this gift, we ran into the boy and his mom at an event. Our youngest, Sender, went up to him and asked, "Do you have the car?" Much to our kids' delight, their new friend pulled the toy out of his pocket.]

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  1. Joey, thanks for posting this, brother. We have an autistic son, who is 2. Our "Titus 2" mom's group had a session where a speech and occupational therapist came to talk about disabilities, since there is a growing number of children who are affected in our church.

    The church needs help understanding what you said so eloquently: autistic kids don't have anything that needs to be "fixed." That's the last thing that they need! They need the love, support, patience, and understanding of a church that cares for them just as they are.

    Blessings and peace to you!

    From one autistic parent--thanks for reminding us all that Christ came to die for all covenant children!

  2. Jeff, thanks for leaving that comment. I didn't know about your son. Sounds like you got an early diagnosis, which is such a blessing.

    If you didn't look at it, look at the link for Special Needs: Ministering or Managing. That was in reference to articles and ministries by The Inclusive Church. Any church that wants insight and resources for special needs ministry should check out that website.

    I have been blessed to be around friends and in a church who have taught me a lot about children with special needs. In a way, I'm EXCITED for the opportunities that your church is getting -- the opportunity to communicate and show the love of the Gospel.

  3. I want your kids to be my kids friends! Or at least have you come parent his peers. Honestly though this actually helps me quite a bit as The Younger is beginning to "outgrow" some things that The Elder hangs onto, namely Thomas and Friends. Sometimes as a parent I just *know* things but stumble over my words when I try to explain it to someone else, much less to be able to in 6 year old jargon when his brother kinda skipped that phase. lol. He went from practically nonverbal to asking questions within a month of his 4th birthday!

  4. First, I'd like to thank you and commend you for taking the time to even talk to your son about this. Many well-meaning parent brush off questions because they themselves don't know how to explain it. By taking just a few moments of time, you have probably planted a tremendous seed of compassion and understanding in your son. Rather than staring or judging other children with disabilities, maybe your son will look upon them now for what they are... a child of God. Just like you and me.

  5. Thanks, Jessica, for your encouragement. I've been fortunate to have a lot of friends and leaders who have taught me so much -- about parenting, leading, and special needs. Anything positive I say is just a reflection of what others have poured into me.

    You are right -- ignoring questions like this helps him learn, and helps him be able to show love to others.