Talking to family members about your child’s diagnosis and needs

Your child’s diagnosis is just that – theirs. But it takes a village to raise a child, and Baby’s village will be able to support him – and you – better if they have an idea of some of the challenges he may face as he grows.

With neurotypical children

If your child with ASD isn’t your first or only child, there are a few different ways you can approach talking to your other children about your autistic child’s diagnosis, and which one you choose will have to take into account both of your children’s personalities, as well as your neurotypical child’s age and maturity level. For some families, introducing the “explanation” of an ASD diagnosis for certain out-of-the-ordinary behaviors might come as a relief, and might help children learn to sympathize with each other better. For others emphasizing the “label” of ASD right away might emphasize a sense of difference between siblings, and complicate a previously-strong sibling bond.

You know your children best, and are the best person to answer the question of whether your neurotypical child will respond best to a sibling’s ASD diagnosis if you keep your explanation quick and casual, and introduce new information as needed, or whether starting out with a more involved discussion might work best.

Some families find that talking about ASD as a “learning difference” is a great entry-point, because even very young children are already starting to learn how different people are, and learning is another aspect of that kind of diversity – everyone learns differently. This means that some children will end up needing more or less help to master certain skills.

For younger children, exploring explanations that use the framework of fictional autistic characters in books or shows can be a helpful way to introduce the subject. Older children might have heard the term ASD, and may have some associations with it already, and so asking them what they already “know” and then working on correcting any misconceptions might be a good place to start. From there, you can talk about the kinds of support your autistic child might need, and how your neurotypical child can help.

With extended family members

Extended family members not only may not have as much information as you, but may also have existing misinformation to work through – so in this way, talking to extended family members about your child’s diagnosis can feel like an added challenge. In the longer run, though, having your extended family’s support for you and for your child can be a major help.

First, figure out what you’re going to say before you pick up the phone and call anyone. If you want to talk to your mom about your child’s diagnosis, but you’re not ready to deal with the response of one of your especially nosy cousins, that’s something it’s good to know before you tell people, not after your mom has just finished calling all the way down the family tree.

Figuring out the level of detail you want to go into, especially with people you may not feel especially close to, can also be helpful. This is your child’s medical information, after all, and he may want to develop his own relationships with his relatives on his own terms, without all of them knowing about his specific challenges.

Connecting family members with your child

Young children on the Autism spectrum can have a harder time connecting with extended family members like grandparents, aunts, and uncles, but strong parental support on both sides can help to bridge the gap. You can help your extended family connect with your little one by offering ways to connect – young children with ASD may not look their grandparents in the eye, or respond to hugs, but if their grandparents meet them where they are, and show an interest in their interests, they may be able to start to build a relationship.

On the other hand, you can help your child feel better about trying to get to know extended family members by communicating his boundaries beforehand. If your child is sensitive to loud noises, asking your brother to keep his voice relatively soft when he interacts with your little one can help him feel more comfortable starting the interaction out feeling comfortable, which may make him more willing and able to start to get to know his uncle.

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