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Do I tell my child about their diagnosis?

Whenever I tell a parent that their child is autistic or has ADHD, I can count on them asking this question. Here are some of the most common things parents want to know, along with my best advice.

Should I tell my child about the autism/ADHD? The answer to this question is easy: Yes. Yes. YES. There are many reasons for this, including:

  • Getting rid of negative labels. Our children (regardless of age) have an awareness of their struggles. They have a sense of what comes easily to them and what doesn’t. If we do not provide them with nonjudgmental language to describe their challenges, they will likely use more negative language. “I was born with a different kind of brain, and it’s called autism/ADHD” is infinitely better than “I’m stupid,” “I’m not likeable,” “I’m weird,” “I’m bad,” or the countless other irrational things that kids say to themselves when they don’t have more appropriate language.

  • Self-compassion. Once they understand that “it’s not my fault,” kids/teens/adults can forgive themselves, stop blaming themselves, and start the healing process.

  • Providing a foundation for self-advocacy. We all hope that our children become strong self-advocates as they mature, particularly our kids who have challenges. The first step to self-advocacy is insight. Teaching them what kind of brain they have will give them that self-awareness and insight.

  • Creating a new option for a sense of belonging. I have yet to meet a kid (or adult) who does not yearn for a sense of belonging. The way to belong to a group is to have something in common, and providing kids with another way to connect with people similar to them is a gift.

  • Basic respect. After all, if I knew something important about you, wouldn’t you want me to tell you?

When and how do I bring this up? There is no one right way, of course, but here are some guidelines:

  • Wait for the right moment. The right moment is when everyone is calm (NOT in the heat of battle or the drama of a meltdown). Ideally, you are walking together or in the car, because then no one has to make eye contact if they don’t want to, and because the rhythmic movement can be calming. Another good option is to talk while your child is enjoying a favorite meal or dessert.

  • Let it come up organically. Once you are ready, just wait for the right opening, which is usually when your child expresses a concern.

  • Don’t dance around it. It’s kind of like when you talk to your kids about S-E-X (another anxiety-provoking conversation for parents). Your child will pick up on any hesitation or discomfort that you feel. Your general tone will be contagious, so it will be important to strategize about which parent has a greater comfort level and to speak from that place of peace.

What exactly do I say?

  • Meet them where they’re at. OK, that sentence isn’t grammatically correct, but it’s still good advice! Start with your child’s questions, concerns, or observations.

  • Educate. I strongly prefer to talk about these things as different brain styles (which they are), rather than diagnoses. Teach your child that they were simply born with a different kind of brain. This makes some things easier than for most people and it can make some things harder.

  • Normalize. Talk about famous people who are autistic or have ADHD and/or family members who might be. Share success stories of relevant neurodivergent people.

  • Highlight their strengths. Be prepared with lots of them! Not just what they happen to be good at in school, but also qualities like their work ethic, compassion, sense of humor, moral compass, resilience, etc.

  • Validate. Don’t expect any particular response. Some kids will ask a lot of questions, while others will be quiet. Some will be relieved while others might be concerned. No matter how your child responds, let them know that it is OK!

  • Empower. Give your child control over who they tell. Encourage them to learn more through books, (appropriate) websites, and discussions with adults at home or school. Remind them that we don’t get to choose what type of brain we have, but we do get to choose what to do with it!

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