How to tell parents that their child may have autistic traits?

Naturally, for every mom and dad, their own child is the most beautiful, smartest and most wonderful. It is also natural for us to be dissatisfied when we hear other people try to discipline or teach our child when he or she is misbehaving. From the moment our children are born we promise that we will love them, protect them and defend them in the event of anyone will try to hurt him or her. And now, at least try to imagine how parents should feel when someone tells them their child is autistic. Probably the very best word that can describe all the thoughts is “doomed”. My child is doomed to have no friends, not to live an independent life, doomed to attend special school or perhaps not to finish it at all, doomed to never find a job or never to start a family …

Most often, for the first time, parents do not hear about it from development center specialists. It will most likely be someone from relatives, neighbours or friends. Maybe it will be a preschool teacher or primary school teacher. If you are the person who has decided that you need to tell the parents about your concerns, make sure you do not frighten them and you are not making the situation worse.

I tried to find literature or an article that addressed this issue, but found very little information. Here’s one piece of advice from Gary J. Heffner in his article How Do I Tell Someone Their Child May Have Autism? : “First, do your research and learn about the signs of autism, then, if possible, print them out and mark those signs”. You really are in favor of this advice because if you tell parents that you are worried about their child and the only explanation is because their child is having meltdowns or being picky about food I guarantee you will be misunderstood. For most parents, two-year-olds are a big challenge anyway, so I suggest you make sure again and again before you say anything, because in many cases, the signs of autism are more pronounced at around that age.

Whether you are a family member, friend, preschool teacher or primary school teacher note that diagnoses, such as autism, can only be made by qualified professionals working in development centers. Saying “I think your child is autistic” cannot be said at all. Even if you are right, I would highly recommend to express it in other words.

If you are a person close to your family, you might say: “I am concerned about your child’s behaviour” or “I am a little worried that your child is reacting to this … (lights, certain sounds, smells, other people, etc.)”. You can then ask if he or she is always such hard work. I do not know if this is a coincidence or not, but as I have been discussing this issue with other parents in Ireland during a routine child development examination in the family doctor’s office, it was this question that was decisive before recommending parents to the development center. The most common reaction from the parents I know to the above question was an expressive YES, accompanied by a deep sigh or even tears … If you get the same reaction, you can safely advise the parents to turn to the professionals. If the parents’ reaction is the opposite, then I would suggest closing this topic and not touching it until the parents themselves want to talk to you about it. Some parents “digest” this information fairly quickly, while others take a little longer, so it’s best to give them some time to think about it or look for more information about it.

If you are a preschool teacher or a primary School teacher declaring that you think the child is autistic is a risk that this child will never return to this School tomorrow or the day after tomorrow… It is very likely that you will end up having a conversation with the principal of the School. I come to this conclusion from today’s “super-moms” online discussions and from the experiences of familiar educators. You will make the biggest mistake if you:

  • Tell everyone about your fears at the parents’ meeting in front of all the other parents;
  • Call the child’s mom or dad somewhere to a hidden place, you will whisper softly as if trying to say that you know they killed a person, but you promise not to tell anyone;
  •  You will start to comfort the parents, hug them and cry with them;
  • You will almost start blackmailing them so that if they do not nothing about it, then you will have to go to the appropriate institutions and so on.

In my personal opinion, educators need to prepare the parents for such a conversation. This can take up to several weeks, especially if you are only working with this child for the first year. If I am not mistaken, the adaptation period in the new educational institution takes six weeks for the children, so even if you notice on the first day that the child is different from his / her peers, I would never hesitate to share my concerns or suspicions with the parents. Perhaps you should start with trying to “make friends” with them, trying to get to know them more, and praising their child for his or her smallest achievement. When you feel that you are ready for the next step, I would recommend starting with small observations that, for example, you notice that the child is very sensitive to noise or bright lights; he/she is not very interested in other children – happiest in his/her own company. Depending on the reaction of the mom or dad, I think you will know when to call for a next-step conversation. If you see the reaction as quite hostile, you might want to wait a bit, but if the mom or dad is the same opinion as you are, invite them for another chat at a time convenient to them parents. Maybe after class or during class, if there was someone to replace you. Ideally, you should be able to bring the parents into a separate space where parents feel safe and comfortable. This way you would, to a certain extent, ensure that the conversation remains confidential. From personal experience, please do not “mock” your mom or dad or both by inviting almost all of the school or preschool staff to talk: the principal, the recourse teacher, a psychologist, a secretary, and a few other teachers, because I guarantee that the atmosphere will not be the best… Well, something like five wolves attacking one or two sheep. I’ve had at least a couple of these conversations, and yet I’ve come to the conclusion, that the conversation of two or three people (you and one parent or you and both parents) have the best results.

I chose this topic as one of the first because, in my opinion, the future of a child who potentially is on the autism spectrum disorder depends to some extent on the person who will tell their parents about it. Remember, if parents are really raising an autistic child, then they are very tired because they get up more than once during the night; their level of stress is above daily limits every day, so naturally they will be more sensitive to any conversation than you might expect. If your thoughts frighten the parents, they will flee, deny, will be angry and they will break away. This means that they will also, in a sense, isolate the child and only delay the whole process. If you approach your parents properly and they are reasonably aware and come to conclusions, they will naturally be aware of your concerns and will turn to qualified professionals who can professionally evaluate their child’s development and direct them to the right support. Do not ignore it! If you think you have such a family in your immediate surroundings, please express your opinion properly. I am sure that sooner or later, they will appreciate it and you will receive sincere thanks.