Playing Nice With Kids Who Are ‘Different’

Help your child understand kids with ASD


Interacting with someone who is “different” can be tough even for adults. No wonder kids don’t always get it right.

But there’s no better place to learn how to manage differences than in school — especially now that many classrooms include kids with autism spectrum disorders (ASD). Kids with ASD can have full-blown autism, a mild form called Asperger’s disorder, or something in between.

“ASD looks different in everybody,” says Leslie Speer, PhD, NCSP, a pediatric psychologist at Cleveland Clinic’s Center for Autism. “One child may be very intelligent and communicate well while another may have cognitive impairment and speech delays.”

What’s the big difference?

Children with ASD may seem different because:

They may not communicate like others. Some children with ASD have delays that make it difficult for them to talk or understand what others are saying. Some don’t speak at all. Others have a mechanical device to help them talk.

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Social interaction can be difficult for them. Often, they struggle with interpreting nonverbal cues, such as facial expressions. They may not know how to respond appropriately to others’ feelings or how to make friends.

Their behavior may not match their peers’. Children with ASD may have intense or unusual interests. For example, one child may think or talk only about airplanes. Another may be preoccupied with a television character or a certain object, like the wheel on a toy car. Some children may have repetitive mannerisms, such as rocking or flapping their hands.

When children see someone who has these traits, it can be scary. They may not know how to respond. That’s where parents and teachers can help.

How parents can help

“Information and education go a long way,” says Dr. Speer, who has conducted sensitivity training in many school classrooms. “Whether or not you say anything, kids notice when a classmate is different. So acknowledge it.”

Talk about it. “Explain the child’s diagnosis,” advises Dr. Speer. “Give them words to use. Depending on the ages involved, you might define autism by name or simply say, ‘John learns differently.’”

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Teach kids how to interact appropriately. Emphasize that interacting with a child who is different is a good thing. “If John loves trains, you might suggest that your child and his or her classmates use blocks to help John build a train,” says Dr. Speer. “People with ASD may have social challenges, but they still want friends. Sometimes they just don’t know how to initiate interaction.”

Make them feel safe. While violence is not a characteristic of ASD, sometimes an autistic child can become aggressive, especially if he or she can’t communicate in other ways. So, if your child feels unsafe around a classmate, establish a procedure for handling any incidents (e.g., advise him to tell the teacher if the classmate tries to hit him). Reinforce that adults in the room are there to keep everybody safe.

“Get rid of the unknowns,” says Dr. Speer. “That makes everyone feel more comfortable.”

Learning how to interact is good for everyone

Children with ASD can learn, grow and develop, stresses Dr. Speer. Many do become successful students and self-sufficient adults — maybe even where you work, shop or visit regularly.

In a world where people are not all the same, there’s great benefit in teaching young children how to interpret and interact with peers who are developing differently. Learning how to be around them and accept them can help reduce teasing and bullying at school as well as prepare them for life in the “real world.”

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  • GeorgeBMac

    This article illustrates some of the myriad problems in lumping Asperger’s in with Autism. The disabilities are totally different on a person to person level. And, while the symptoms of those who have those disabilities have some similarities, the differences are FAR greater.
    A kid with Autism may come off appearing to be slow or even retarded.
    A kid with Asperger’s is more likely to appear to be a super intelligent geek.
    Yet, the psychologists not only want to label those two things with the same label, they want to treat them the same as well… The fact is: psychology has no idea what ASD/Asperger’s is on a physiologic level, nor do they have a clue as to what causes either one… But yet they lump them together — despite their major differences….
    Psychology is still in the dark ages… Next they will be treating Autism with leaches.

    • Princess Olivia

      I agree. My daughter has Aspergers and she is very verbal, in fact, her vocabulary has always been so rich that people would often ask me if she was in a gifted program at school. She also has ADHD so talks quite fast about many different subjects that interest her, like Egyptology. Since she has Aspergers she often says the wrong thing or asks pretty personal questions, so she comes across as having “bad manners”, no one would ever guess Aspergers unless they were very knowledgeable about it. No one ever suspects she has Aspergers, instead they blame me for “bad parenting” :-(. I agree that children with other forms of the Autism Spectrum disorder behave differently, they are often in their own world and seem to almost dislike being encouraged to interact with the outside world. My daughter LOVES to talk to people and actually seeks out opportunities to interact. This is the most cruel fact of Aspergers…because of the social skill problem she is often met with indifference and avoidance, which is really sad. I wish more people understood Aspergers, and lumping it with more severe forms of Autism, where people often dislike interaction…doesn’t help!

    • Health Hub Team

      Thank you for your comment, GeorgeBMac. You’re right, autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is generally a confusing group of diagnoses because of it covers such a range of symptoms, severity and ability levels. I always tell parents that one of the greatest challenges they will face will be to help family members, teachers and others who interact with their child to understand what the diagnosis means for that child. Once a parent chooses to inform someone else of the child’s diagnosis, the person will base their understanding of the diagnosis — be it autism or Asperger’s disorder— on past experiences with other children who had an autism spectrum diagnosis. And it likely will not be an accurate representation of that child’s abilities. A parent faces a great challenge in educating those who work with their child about his or her personal strengths and weaknesses. Parents should not be in this alone. They should call on others, such as a school psychologist, counselor or the provider who diagnosed the child, for help.

      Leslie Speer, PhD

  • tonyag

    I wish there was more to this article

  • reallyweary

    Enough already from the Parents! Geez, my son has non verbal autism but he understands everything you say to him. I’m getting so very weary of the whole “HIGH FUNCTIONING” and “LOW FUNCTIONING” labels on these children. I have yet to meet ONE of them introduce themselves to me as such! Parents place all the importance on this. Our children can thrive and function with love and good teaching….can we just be thankful for them and pray we can educate others enough to accept them without all the stigma?