I’ve written about how to tell your child that they’re autistic. But how do you tell a friend you suspect their child may be on the spectrum?
Three years ago, I knew almost nothing about autism. The things that I did know was nothing like what I saw in my kids. They were just quirky, I thought. It wasn’t until I had a daughter with regression and delays that autism was brought up. And it wasn’t by her doctor; it was by my friend.
My friend watched all three of my kids one day for several hours so I could clean my house before out of town company visited. When I came to pick them up, she asked if I could talk for a moment. Oh crap, I thought, what did the boys do now? But it wasn’t about the boys; it was about Lady Bug. At this point Lady Bug was a newly turned two-year-old. She had been speaking preciously at 14 months, but now at 24 months was not talking nearly enough. I had expressed some concerns over that to my friend previously. She reminded me of that, and then mentioned that the night before she had happened to be reading something about the M-CHAT: the Modified CHecklist for Autism in Toddlers. Having that fresh in her mind, she had noticed some things on the checklist with Lady Bug while watching her. Would I consider looking at the M-CHAT myself? she asked.
I was stunned. This was unexpected to me, as I did not know any of the “warning signs” of autism to ever suspect. I knew she hadn’t been talking like she had before, but surely that was my fault. See, the summer that Lady Bug went through her regression, my PTSD triggers moved from out of state to the same town; on the exact same day I had oral surgery that went really bad. I went in to a bad anxiety/depression/burn out for months. I barely talked beyond the essentials to keep the kids cared for. So if Lady Bug wasn’t talking, it was because I wasn’t engaging her, right? I just needed to get back to engaging her properly and she’d be talking again like she was before.
So, while I didn’t think my friend was right, I did the M-CHAT anyway. Results came back “high chance, talk to doctor immediately.” Well, I probably over exaggerated things. I had husband do it when he got home, not telling him what I chose. He made some different entries; same result. That’s what started us on this journey.
At no time did I hate my friend, or think she was insulting my kid. For a while I may have dismissed her as not knowing my child well enough to be right about her, but I took her suggestions in good faith, with the assumption that she just wanted the best for my kid, same as me. But that is apparently a really rare reaction? Did I just respond that way because I am also autistic?
In several facebook groups I’m in, I see people asking about a friend’s child they think may be on the spectrum, and how to address it with said friend. The overwhelming response every time is to say nothing because the parent is assumed to not really want to know. People are assured that it’s not their place to say, and that they will lose their friend if they say anything.
Quiet frankly, that is shocking to me. Builder Boy needed glasses; I had no idea. How long did we struggle needlessly with his reading? If someone had recognized that he might be having vision problems, and didn’t tell me so I could help him get glasses, I’d be pretty hurt and angry at someone keeping that from me. I would much rather have known sooner so we could help him as needed. For me, a friend’s kid possibly being on the spectrum is the same kind of thing.
Wondering if those people who were counseling others to silence were correct, I asked in my local parents of autistics group these questions: How did you find out? If a friend had told you before you were aware of it, would you have been offended and stopped being friends with them? What do YOU think the best way to tell a friend their child may be on the spectrum is?
Not a single respondent said they stopped being friends with the person who pointed it out to them. Some didn’t believe it at first, but eventually they did get a diagnosis and were grateful to the person who pointed it out. So, why are we discouraging people from telling?
No, it’s not guaranteed that your friend is going to take it well. There are still a lot of negative associations and stereotypes out there, and yes, your friend has a good chance of thinking you’re attacking or insulting their kid. But you know what’s worse? Finding out later in life, wishing you’d known sooner, and then finding out that someone suspected and never said anything to you. That happened to me, about me. I told an aunt that I suspected I may be on the spectrum, and she told me she’d thought that since I was a kid. That was devastating to me, that she let me go for so long not knowing. I heard the same from other parents in regards to their kid who had friends who only said something after their kid was identified. So, on balance, I think it’s a lot better to risk losing a friend for saying something than not saying something. Don’t you owe it to the child to help them not go through a childhood of being misunderstood?