Autism Can Be Hard to Talk About…

…especially with a child who is on the spectrum. Our daughter is 11 years old and is currently going through an “I don’t have autism” phase. I am sure that her opinion is bolstered by having received two conflicting diagnoses. The first diagnosis was about two years ago, made by a pediatric neurologist. This doctor’s opinion was that Emma clearly had Asperger’s Syndrome. A year later, a team of psychiatrists opined that Emma does not have autism (more on all of this another time). Celeste and I still think that autism best explains Emma’s idiosyncratic personality. Emma and I had a conversation about our difference of opinion last night, when walking to the local 7-11 store.

Crossing the dimly lit main arterial near our home, Emma asked me, “Dad, why don’t I make eye contact?”

I replied, “Well, some people attribute a lack of eye contact to mean that a person is shy. Others say that it is also a trait of autism, in some people.”

“I don’t have autism, Dad. There has to be a logical explanation.”

“Well, sure,” I said, getting ready to probe her thoughts on this subject, “But are you saying that autism is not a logical explanation for some people’s behavior?”

“Mmm, no, but I am too busy thinking sometimes to look at people when I’m talking. That doesn’t mean autism.”

“True, not by itself. I often look off into the distance when thinking and speaking at the same time.”

“So I got it from you.”

“Mhm, and also your grandma.”

“And the clothing thing doesn’t mean autism, either. I just haven’t worn skirts or dresses to this school yet, so I am not comfortable doing it.”


“About the loud noises, I just don’t like them.”

“I know, honey.”

“Well, so that doesn’t mean autism.”

“Hmmm, maybe, maybe not.”

“The hair thing [pulling at the hair at the nape of her neck] is just a habit, like biting fingernails. I can’t bite my fingernails, so I pull on my hair. See? Not autism.”

I said, “You are right that each individual trait that you mentioned is not enough by itself to say that a person has autism. What starts to get people’s attention -including doctors- is when a few or several of these traits are seen in one person. It becomes harder to explain why a given person behaves the way they do without reference to a medically recognized condition.”

We left the conversation there. Make sure to talk to your children about autism spectrum disorders – you might be surprised at what you’ll learn.


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