Anyone who lives or works with someone with ASD is probably familiar with social stories, a strategy in which you explain the important details of a situation, what to expect, and what is expected from the individual with ASD. In talking about autism with others, we can reverse the social story, telling people important details about what autism means, what you might expect from your child, and what the person interacting with your child is expected to do in order to help the situation.
I recommend to parents that they first make sure they understand what autism looks like in general and then, more importantly, how autism affects their child specifically. For example, in general, people with autism have difficulty with social communication and engage in restricted or repetitive behaviors. Figure out what that means for your child. Does your child have trouble engaging with other people? Is your child actually very outgoing, but has trouble recognizing boundaries and interpreting how other people respond to her? Does your son become really focused on his interest and have trouble talking with others about anything else?
Highlight Strengths and Pertinent Challenges
Once you have a few specific examples of how autism affects your child, think about the positive side to their autism. If your child has a restricted interest, simply explain, “autism for Lexie means that she becomes really focused on what she’s interested in and she delves into the topic - she learns so much about musicals and knows every word to every song ever sung on Broadway! It’s remarkable, really.” Then, you think about your audience and share pertinent details about specific challenges for your child. In this case, “the challenge is sometimes in getting Lexie to realize that other people don’t have the stamina to talk about musicals as much as she does and that others want to talk about other things, too...or maybe that they want a break from hearing about musicals.”
How to Help
Next, tell the person what he can do to help (or cope with) the challenge. You can explain, “we’ve been working with Lexie on paying attention to when other people need a break from musicals. If you ever get to that point with her, you can just say, ‘I need a break from listening about musicals now’ and that will remind her to put her headphones on and listen to music for a little bit.” In this step, you’re simply giving the person guidance and permission to respond in a way that fits with your child’s needs and interventions. As an added bonus, if the person does respond in the way you’ve suggested and you’ve truly worked with your child on what her response should be (i.e., give the person a break from listening, put on your headphones and listen to some music), you’ve just provided your child with an opportunity to adjust her behavior in the moment.