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How Do You Explain Autism to Your Son?

Dad prepares for "The Talk."

The book displayed caught my attention. My son and I were in the children’s section of the public library, just prior to the start of Hanukkah. 

Nathan Blows Out the Hanukkah Candles was an amusing title – one that I could relate to.  At past Hanukkahs, Kai has wanted to blow out the candles on our menorah.

I grabbed the book and quickly paged through it. It looked like a fun story. At a minimum, it was timely, and I thought that perhaps it would help my son learn a little more about the holiday we would soon be celebrating. 

So, I checked the book out and brought it home. 

It was only after I began reading it with Kai at bedtime one night that I realized that the title character was a boy with autism. I had unwittingly chosen a book that might spur our first discussion about autism with our son. 

The story is told from the perspective of Jacob, the younger brother who is sometimes embarrassed by his older sibling with autism.  Nathan repeats himself constantly and recites the fifty United States in alphabetical order. As I read, I saw the similarities between Nathan and my son – Kai had once memorized the order that the fifty states joined the union. 

In the story, Jacob’s mother reminds him that Nathan’s brain is wired differently. But Jacob is mortified when, in the presence of his new friend, Nathan blows out the Hanukkah candles during the menorah-lighting ceremony. 

In the end, the boys’ parents deal with the situation in a patient, creative and loving way that embraces Nathan and teaches acceptance. 

It was a wonderful story.

But I was uncomfortable reading it with Kai. We haven’t told him that he has autism. I wasn’t sure that I was prepared to have that discussion yet.

I was worried that the book would spur questions from him. Lately, he has frequently been asking me to explain what different words mean.  What would I say to him if he asked what "autism" is? Would he recognize that he has autism? How would I explain that to him?

My worries were for naught that night. Kai did not ask any questions. I don’t know if he noticed any resemblance between himself and Nathan. And I was too chicken to ask him about it. 

I had passed on the opportunity to have "The Talk."

Another opportunity

Kai received an iPad for Christmas and his favorite app right now is BrainPOP, which features entertaining animated movies that teach kids about various topics in math, science, social studies, English, health, technology, arts and music. 

He and I both love BrainPOP. Kai thinks that Moby, the orange robot who appears in every movie, is hilarious. I like that the short films do a great job of succinctly explaining each topic. 

The other day, Kai was browsing through the health section when he noticed a movie on ADHD. He asked my wife what it was and they watched it together. At the end, the app recommended films on related topics, including autism. 

Kai did not choose to watch that one, so we once again dodged "The Talk."

But I realized that it would only be a matter of time. One of these days, Kai is bound to ask why we have an Autism Awareness magnet on our car, or why we read so many books and periodicals on the subject. 

So I’ve been thinking about what I would say.

I will explain to him what autism is, and how it affects the people who have it. Perhaps learning about it will help him understand why he has difficulties in some areas. I don’t know how much self-awareness he has, but having this knowledge might give him some context of the world he lives in, and perhaps give him peace of mind for knowing why he is different from others. 

Most of all, I want to convey that autism doesn’t make him bad, or dumb or undesirable. It makes him a special kid with some unique challenges, and abilities. One that Mom and Dad love a whole lot.

And as I write this, my son has gone on his iPad once again. He opened up BrainPOP and went to the health section. I'm holding my breath. The topic he chooses this time is...

“Where Do Babies Come From?”

It looks like I’ll be having "The Talk" all right. Just not the one I’ve been preparing for.

Barbara MacArthur January 21, 2012 at 10:41 AM
Some say that they say they are searching for a “cure” for autism. However, I believe that there is no ‘cure’ as autism is a different type of mind. - Evolution’s way of preparing future man for new technology. My autistic son, Howard, is so proficient on a computer, because it is in a virtual world and because he has such concentration. Now most of us haven’t got good memories because our thoughts are diverted. Howard has no problem in concentrating on one thing at a time so when he is on the computer he is better than the average person, because of his absolute concentration. He could not talk until he was about 9 yrs old and was refused education by the local education authority 'because of his disability of mind' and 'medical experts' described him as a 'write-off'. Yet, many years later he graduated from University in Computer Science!
Yuji Fukunaga January 21, 2012 at 01:06 PM
Nice interview... I like when the mother tells her son that "I really learned to think out of the box with you, and it's made me much more creative, as a parent and as a person, and I'll always thank you for that." Thanks, Nathaniel!
Yuji Fukunaga January 21, 2012 at 01:10 PM
The whole concept of finding a "cure" for autism is a controversy in the autism community. I may write more about that in one of my columns. Your son is a great example of the abilities of some autistic people. Howard really overcame what the 'experts' thought he was capable of. Congrats to him, and to you, Barbara!
Maria Vanessa Moreno Iglesias January 31, 2012 at 02:08 PM
Yuji, I enjoy reading what you write! I can relate to so much because of my brother. After reading your story, and the comments, I just want to bring some awareness that has been stirring up in the autism world. I, as well as some others, do not like saying that someone is autistic, because that one aspect does not make up their whole persona. You do not say that someone is cancerous just because they have cancer. I am aware that it is used with diabetes as well, saying "I am diabetic", and I think that should change too. I try to change it when I speak about my brother, saying he HAS autism, not that he IS autistic. It might also help immensely when you have "the talk". My brother was also diagnosed with OCD and Bi-Polar Disorder, so these are just other things that make up who he is, as well as caring, loving, creative, funny, etc... Also, the only "CURE" my mother and me have found for my brother is therapy, education and patience! My brother was in speech therapy, social/physical therapy, anything my mom could get him into, as well as sports and classes, though he'd rarely last in sports! I think the only true cure is awareness and education, for everyone: the child, the family and the community!
Yuji Fukunaga January 31, 2012 at 03:22 PM
Hi Maria, You raise a great point. I am totally with you that when someone has autism, that does not make up their whole persona. In my writing, I usually try to say "my son with autism" instead of "autistic son" but I have to admit that I have used the latter phrase from time to time out of brevity or to avoid redundancy. I'll speak with my editor about better options. (Though, hopefully, people reading will see that there is more to Kai than just his autism). I know what you are saying about the only true cure being awareness and education. In my son's case, I'm not looking for a cure so much as I'm looking for treatments and therapies that would help improve his quality of life, not to "cure" him. Hopefully each of us are helping to build the type of awareness that you wrote about. You sound like a great sister! Thank you for reading, and your insightful comments.

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