12 Things Never To Say To Parents Of Autistic Kids

It's time we all educated ourselves about how to make things better for neurodiverse kids – and it starts with addressing these misconceptions.
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Parents of autistic children have opened up about some of the common misconceptions people have about their kids – from believing girls don’t have autism, to suggesting they can’t be autistic because they can speak.

When people misunderstand autism, it can lead to diagnosis being missed and needs going unmet for a long period of time, according to Great Minds Together (GMT), an organisation that supports children and young people with special educational needs.

The support group asked its network of parents for some of the most common stereotypes or assumptions about autism they’ve come across.

Instead of saying some of the unhelpful phrases below, Emma Mander, co-founder and director of GMT, urges people to be “open, understanding and listen to the behaviour of young people”.

“All behaviour is a communication of need – are we meeting that need? It is about what we should do differently as adults, not what they must to do confirm to our expectations,” she says.

Here are some things you should definitely not be saying to parents of autistic kids – or the children themselves.

1. ‘A child can’t be autistic if they’re verbal’

Around 25-30% of kids with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are minimally verbal (meaning they speak fewer than 30 words) or don’t speak at all, according to Healthline.

That means the rest are verbal – but there’s still a common misconception that autistic kids don’t speak at all.

2. ‘They can’t be autistic because they give eye contact’

Another misconception that often needs addressing. Yes, some autistic people struggle to make eye contact – but certainly not all.

3. ‘They must be a maths genius’

There’s a common misunderstanding that all autistic people are superior at maths – or specific subjects. But again, this isn’t true. Everyone is different.

“Not all autistic people are good at maths,” says Mander. “For some, their autism might mean that they actually find maths and problem-solving more challenging.”

4. ‘She doesn’t look autistic’

This is just rude and unhelpful. “What exactly do you expect them to look like?” says Mander. Autistic people’s brains work differently, but it does not manifest itself in a physical sense.”

5. ‘They appear normal’

Define normal!” adds GMT’s co-founder. “There are a large number of autistic people whose autism doesn’t conflict with the expectations of society, and they are able to live independently.”

6. ‘Girls don’t get autism, it’s a boy thing’

Statistics do show that more boys are diagnosed with autism than girls. A global analysis of data in 2017 estimated there are about 4.2 boys with autism for every girl.

But that doesn’t mean girls don’t have it – and in fact, this way of thinking may lead to more girls remaining undiagnosed.

“There are varying factors to consider,” says Mander. “Girls often present differently and may show less of the more commonly recognised signs, and are also good at masking, so their autism is more likely to be missed or misdiagnosed.”

7. ‘They will grow out of it’

Being autistic does not mean a child has an illness or disease. It simply means their brain works in a different way from other people. So no, they won’t “grow out of it” – and nor should they be expected to.

“This isn’t a behaviour to be corrected, it is how their brain works and processes information, and that will not change,” says Mander.

“What will change is the understanding of the people around them and giving them the tools to navigate a world that is not currently built for them.”

8. ‘Autism can be cured’

“It isn’t an illness, and it is insulting to autistic people to imply that there is something wrong with them that needs to be fixed,” adds Mander.

9. ‘It’s not autism because they eat a variety of foods’

Sensitivity to textures and tastes is fairly common in autistic people, especially children. “But there are many autistic people who eat and enjoy a wide variety of tastes and textures,” adds Mander.

10. ‘Everybody is a little bit autistic’

“It is believed that one in 100 children are autistic, and up to 30% of people may have at least one of the traits. But no, not everybody is a little bit autistic,” she says.

11. ‘Well, they’re fine at school’

A child might appear to act differently at school but this, says GMT’s co-founder, is because some children are very good at “masking and mirroring behaviour in order to try and fit in”.

“Even if they appear fine at school, they’re probably not and might be exploding with emotions when they get home to a safe space,” she adds.

12. ‘They’re just naughty –autism is caused by poor parenting’

This is just an unhelpful – and inaccurate – message all round. “This misconception ties into the thought that it is ‘bad behaviour’. They may be displaying behaviour that is a result of their unmet need, but that is a cry for help,” says Mander. “Not a badly behaved child.

“All it tells us is that they are not being heard. It also cannot be a result of ‘poor parenting’. A parent cannot control how their child’s mind processes information.”