How do you explain autism to a four year old?

Yesterday B and I were chatting about life in general and he began to talk about J being autistic (or ontistic as he calls it). We have always tried to be open with B and explain to him why things can be different for his brother, why sometimes he doesn’t want to play and why he can’t quite talk yet. It occurred to me today that part of this explanation is that J is autistic, but up until now I hadn’t really thought about going into much more detail than that. That is until B said “Mummy J doesn’t really talk yet, but that’s ok it’s like back when I was ontistic and I couldn’t talk yet.” That’s when I realised that he knows the word but doesn’t really understand what it means. I asked him what he meant by saying when he was autistic and he said it was when he was like J and didn’t know how to talk and couldn’t always understand what people were telling him to do.


I was a bit stuck for what to say to him. I explained that B is not autistic, that it doesn’t just mean when someone can’t talk or understand, that autism can mean not being able to play with people, as well as many other things and that it’s not something that goes away as you get older. I told him that J works very hard to learn the things he learns, a little bit harder than B has to and that J will always have autism.

He seemed to take this on board, though I know it wasn’t a full or great explanation. Since coming home I’ve had a look for resources on how to explain autism to siblings and I plan to use the most appropriate ones for B’s age to help him understand his brother a little more. For me the lesson from this is not to just take it for granted that someone using a word to describe something means that they fully know what it means, check for understanding and find ways to explain more fully. I know he’s only four but he understands a lot and telling him more information can only be a good thing for him in the long run.

Information on explaining autism to siblings:

Information to support siblings -NAS

Top Tips for Supporting your Sibling Child – Sibs

Understanding Siblings – Scottish Autism

Siblings – Siblings Australia Inc                                                                                                       (Not a UK based page but still has some useful information.)

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8 thoughts on “How do you explain autism to a four year old?

    1. The links are really useful and I’ve looked up some books on Amazon, just trying to narrow it down to the most suitable one or two. Kids are very accepting and to them it’s what they know. They cope much better than us adults. Thanks for commenting x

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Thanks for the links, let us know how you get on searching for books. I like the sibs link as it talks generally about how to make a child with a sibling with a disability feel like they are important too. We definitely have this issue. We talk to the 5yo about the 8yo’s autism mostly in terms of explaining that his brain works differently. It has given me some food for thought
    #bigpinklink

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This is a word that I think even some adults would struggle to understand in its entirety. Its so complex and complicated that it can be difficult to break it down into simpler terms. You’re right, we just have to keep on talking and sharing information. #bigpinklink

    Liked by 1 person

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