Should parents talk to elementary aged kids about being autistic? Parents can best decide if this discussion would make any sense to their child, so I don’t believe this is a teacher’s decision. Every child is unique, with quite different views of themselves, school, and relationships. Would this disclosure cause confusion? Would it create distress or relief? I do believe there is a point where students may feel reassured by an open discussion of their unique gifts and challenges, especially if they have tormenting fears about themselves and their future.
Should teachers talk to elementary aged kids about being autistic? Not without parental request. First of all, young kids with any learning difficulties (kindergarten and first grade, typically) don’t automatically know they have a “label.” If they are mainstreamed into a regular classroom, they would be one of numerous kids who work with adults in a small group setting. If handled correctly, most kids are pleased to get extra adult attention. Second, unless you can tell that the child is concerned, there is no reason to focus on differences; the goal is to build strengths and shape problem areas without drawing unnecessary attention to differences. That being said, I have worked with kindergarten students who were well aware that they were different from other kids in some way.
As they mature, kids who are high functioning will definitely notice differences between themselves and their peers. They may question having social skills instruction and simultaneously, wonder why they don’t have friends. Obviously, if parents have already had this discussion with their kids, it’s not “classified information,” but any child’s understanding of themselves is a gradual process (and that goes for adults, too) . What a student understands about autism as a 10 year old will be vastly different from what they know as a young adult. I would ask, “How does this discussion help the student?” “How does it improve my instruction for this student?” If I feel that students are struggling with some aspect of labeling, perhaps having overheard conversations or developing an understanding of their IEPs, I would talk to parents about starting a dialog on this topic. I believe we need to follow the child’s lead in this.
What’s my experience when kids know they are on the autism spectrum? It’s been varied and limited (primarily because I’m an elementary teacher, although I’ve worked with older kids on the autism spectrum, too). A couple of kids have successfully tried to eliminate any outward manifestations of differences, with that approach taking quite a toll on one of them. A few kids have wanted further opportunities to talk openly about their disability, in part because they felt special in a positive way and in part because they were exploring their new understanding.
I know this topic can be a difficult one for kids, parents, and teachers alike. I would welcome your opinions and experiences on this issue.