In honor of Autism Acceptance Month, all through April we’ll be donating $1 to Autism Speaks for every haircut Mondays through Fridays. This month is also a great time to remind your kids how not being exactly alike is incredibly awesome.
You’ve probably run across a meme on your social media or heard someone say, “Our differences are our superpowers.” When you hear that do you usually nod and think, “Yeah, that’s SO true!”
Or do you pause and wonder, “Really?” as you worry about your kids being TOO different…so unique they get labeled a “weirdo,” and no one wants to sit with them in the lunchroom.
Parents of children with autism know all too well what if feels like to have their kids seen as too different, too scary, too weird, and like they have a contagious disease that you don’t want to get too close to.
Autism Awareness Month started being observed in April many years ago, along with the United Nations’ World Autism Awareness Day on April 2. However, a few years ago, The Autism Society, along with several other autism-related organizations, changed the name from Autism Awareness Month to Autism Acceptance Month.
This came out of the growing recognition that these days, there’s plenty of awareness of autism. But from kids to adults, people with autism still often experience a lot of difficulties and obstacles – from exclusion to bullying to limited education options, to fewer job opportunities. Good health care can even be an issue. And so much of the lack of inclusion and acceptance for people on the spectrum stems from the fear of difference.
So how can you help your kids be more accepting, and less afraid of differences? How can you help them learn to enjoy their “unsameness” and see the beauty in everyone’s uniqueness? Like most of the good behaviors they learn, you can teach them by what you say and what you do.
1. Talk about it.
Let’s say you have one of those embarrassing moments when your 3-year-old decides to use their newfound language skills to shout out while in the Target checkout line: “Mommy why does that person look so weird?” Or when you’re helping your 8-year-old plan their birthday party and they confess they don’t want to invite THAT kid because they are “a spaz.” Or when you catch your 14-year-old talking about someone who’s “a total loser.”
These are moments when you may find yourself wearing that Kevin-face-slapping scream from “Home Alone.”
However, any of these moments can actually be a great opportunity to have a real conversation about differences and conditions like autism that can make people feel unappreciated and isolated.
But yes, it may feel like a hard conversation.
Many experts suggest that you start by being prepared, not just jumping into it, willy-nilly. First, think about what you really want to say and about a simple way to say it. Then find a comfortable time and place to talk and lead with curiosity, not judgement. So, for example, you might say, “I noticed that you called that person a weirdo today. I’m curious why you said that…” As you talk, continue to be curious and ask questions and really listen to your child’s answers. And be honest about your own feelings and struggles and experiences with differences, and about your own commitment to do better.
Also, if you have written down “family rules” about how you treat other people, remind them of those. If you haven’t created some family rules, this might be a good project to begin.
2. Be a model.
Our kids learn so much from what we do and how we act. If we love to hike, they often…surprise, surprise…love it too. If we like to read, they become readers. If we adore asparagus…well, maybe not…
In terms of teaching acceptance of others, you’re most likely already modeling great behavior for your kids: You probably don’t sit around the dinner table and bash people for being “strange” or call people names or say disparaging things about people with differing abilities, right?
However, a lot of times as adults, we tend to spend time with people who are as much like us as possible. So, it ends up that most of our friends are pretty similar to us, because it’s easier. We just “get” each other. Being with people who are different from us can be awkward…we don’t know if we’ll do the right thing or say the right thing. Or if we’ll unwittingly embarrass ourselves horribly. And, whether we realize it or not, we can be sending the message to our kids that they should avoid people who are not like them.
How can we change that? We can start by intentionally spending time with people who aren’t just like us, either in abilities or in the way their minds work, or in their skin color or background or religion or in the size of their bank account.
So, the next time you go to the softball game or the school gathering or the church picnic what if you modeled for your kids that it’s ok to be awkward? What if you sat down with someone you didn’t know who seemed very different from you and started a conversation? Not easy perhaps, but it will be good for your kids to see (even though in the moment it may make them cringe) – and pushing ourselves out of our comfort zone can often be very good for us as parents as well. Who knows, we might even make new friends who will challenge us and open up our world in all kinds of beautiful and unexpected ways.
3. Learn more together.
Reading books or watching tv shows or seeing movies about people who have autism can be a great way to celebrate Autism Acceptance Month. Check your local library or online bookstore for books about kids with autism. A few we’ve recently come across: Uniquely Wired: A Story About Autism and Its Gifts by Julia Cook; All My Stripes: A Story for Children With Autism by Shaina Rudolph, and one by a parent of two kids with autism: This Is Me! I am who I’m meant to be! by Amy Pflueger.
Another cool kids’ book that’s not specifically about autism but about “embracing what makes YOU special while finding common ground with those around you” is The World Needs More Purple People, by the actor Kristen Bell along with Benjamin Hart.
You might also want to check out Autism Speaks and other advocacy organizations for recommendations on movies and TV shows that help demystify autism and would be enjoyable to watch with your kids on family movie night.
4. Celebrate your kid’s differences.
Often as parents, almost without realizing it, we can find ourselves encouraging our kids to fit in and not stand out too much – usually as a way of protecting them from others who might make fun of them or exclude them. But what if we celebrated what makes them different as often as possible? What if we started this month…as a way of honoring all the amazing and awesomely unique kids with autism out there, by encouraging our kids to express their own unique ideas, dreams, interests and even hairstyle choices (Asymmetrical? Super Tall Mohawk?) and supported them when they did?
What if we reminded our kids that there is no one else like them in the whole wide world…and that’s a good thing…and that the world needs what they have to give. What if we reminded them this month, and every month, that all the things that make us different really can be our superpowers…if we aren’t ashamed of them. If we truly embrace them.
And here’s a wild thought: what if we did that for ourselves, too? What if we all decided weird wasn’t a bad thing to be? What if we began believing weird was wonderful?
Have a child on the spectrum? We know it can be especially difficult for kids with autism to get a haircut because of sensory issues and dealing with change. Our KidSnips hair stylists are specially trained to help your child feel more comfortable with the experience from start to finish. Just let us know when you book your appointment.