Tips for explaining autism to younger neurotypical children

Explaining Autism for Younger children feature

Recently, a friend of mine sought my advice. Her children attend nursery with a young girl with autism and sometimes her behaviour scares them. She makes loud noises, likes to touch things a lot and sometimes gets too close. How, she asked me, can I explain in a sensitive way? I have also experienced this myself. My son’s stimming scared the other children and his nursery approached us to ask how best to handle it. This got me thinking – if your child attends any setting with other children – nursery, playgroups, preschool and schools – they may well encounter an autistic child. There are about 700,000 people on the autism spectrum in the UK – that’s more than 1 in 100. If you include their families, autism is a part of daily life for 2.8 million people.

I thought some tips with how to deal with these situations, with some vocabulary for how best to explain it to children, may be a useful resource. I have chosen six main areas and each section comes with an explanation for adults and for small children. For older children, you could adapt sections to include more of the vocabulary from the adult explanations. Here are my tips for explaining autism to younger children.

Explaining Autism To Younger Children


Explanation for adults:

‘Stimming’ is short for self-stimulatory behaviour. It is also sometimes also called ‘stereotypic’ behaviour. In a person with autism, stimming usually refers to repetitive actions that include hand- flapping, rocking, spinning, or repetition of words and phrases. Stimming is almost always a symptom of autism, and it’s usually something that marks out an autistic person as different. For this reason, children may well be scared if one of their classmates constantly flaps or rocks. Autistic people sometimes like other repetitive actions, like saying certain words or phrases.

While autistic stimming does look unusual, most people engage in a subtle form of stimming. If you’ve ever tapped a pencil, bitten your nails, twirled your hair, or tapped your toes, you’ve engaged in stimming.

Autistic individuals use stimming to self-regulate and cope with sensory issues. See later for a section on sensory issues.

Explanation for children:

That little girl or boy does that to make themselves feel good. Sometimes, when you feel sad or happy, you like to do certain things don’t you? You might like to hold a certain toy or get a blanket or cuddle with mummy or daddy, or run around? Well, that little girl or boy sometimes flaps/bounces/rocks because it makes them feel safe and happy. You should try not to be scared.


Explanation for adults:

Some people with autism seem not to communicate at all. Others may have average or even advanced vocabulary and understanding but may still seem to ignore others, or misunderstand them. The spectrum is extremely wide and children on it may struggle in a range of different areas, some more than others. Individuals on the spectrum sometimes have trouble with the rules of interaction that most children learn automatically. This can manifest in several ways:

  • Ignoring other children entirely
  • Approaching other children but giving odd responses or inappropriate answers. Read about an example with my son here.
  • Playing in different ways, enjoying repetitive behaviour and not enjoying imaginative play
  • Really struggling to manage their emotions, particularly anger and frustration – as the world is such a frustrating place for them.

Explanation for children:

That little boy or girl doesn’t play and talk the same way you do. Sometimes they might take a long time to answer or not answer at all. They may not like your games and make up their own. That doesn’t mean they don’t like you. They just don’t quite know what you mean. You could try to join in their game if they like that, or you could try asking them something else. If they say something funny, or strange, you shouldn’t be worried or scared. They are just interested in something else so you could ask them about that. If they get angry or scared, you should try to be kind but also get an adult to help you.


Explanation for adults:

People with autism do not experience the world in the same way as neurotypical people. Sometimes they are hypersensitive to sights, smells, touch, taste and noises. This means they experience them much more strongly or in different ways. Sometimes they are hyposensitive and this means they feel like their senses are deadened, for want of a better explanation, and they need lots of sensory input. These sensations can change a lot, meaning an individual who is hypersensitive to one noise, on one day, could seek out and make loud noises on another. (I know that sounds confusing – so just imagine what it must feel like to an autistic person. Imagine if sights and sounds were always unpredictable. That is a pretty scary world.)

You can see a great video that shows what this must feel like here:

A combination of these sensory issues, and a lack of understanding about some social rules, means that sometimes people with autism can get very close to others, even strangers. This can be unnerving for adults and children alike if an autistic person gets very close.

Explanation for children:

That little boy or girl sees and hears things differently to you. A noise that might sound really quiet to you might be very loud to them. Sometimes they may make a lot of noise because it doesn’t sound as loud or frightening to them. Sometimes they might get too close, or touch you or other people in a way that seems strange, but it is only because things feel different to them. If they are doing something that you do not like, try telling an adult instead of getting angry or frustrated with them.


Explanation for adults:

Because autistic people experience the world differently, the concept of turn-taking and waiting can be extremely hard to cope with. They can sometimes struggle with abstract thought and cannot visualise how long something will actually take. This is particularly true of children, as children in general are not renowned for their patience! This means that you may say ‘Ok in ten minutes’ but they will not comprehend that at all. Imagine if you were waiting for something and someone said ‘You can have it at some point in the future but I am not going to tell you when’. Add this to all the other issues above, especially trouble managing emotions, and it often means young autistic people really struggle while learning to wait and take turns.

Explanation for children:

Sometimes, that little boy or girl doesn’t understand turns. They might think they are never going to get a turn, because they feel like everything takes a very, very long time. If they get upset taking turns or waiting while you are there, you should try to stay calm and patient. You will still get your turn but a teacher or helper may have to try to help them first. They don’t mean to be unkind to you, they just feel like the waiting will last a very long time.


Explanation for adults:

The world can seem a very unpredictable and confusing place to autistic people, who often prefer a daily routine so that they know what is going to happen. They may want to always travel the same way to and from school or work, or eat the same food for breakfast. They may even have to have the food cut is exactly the same way, on the same plate.

The use of rules can also be important. It may be difficult for an autistic person to take a different approach to something once they have been taught the ‘right’ way to do it. This means if another child ‘breaks’ a rule, as the autistic child sees it, it can cause distress. My son, for example, becomes inconsolable when other people cross the road when the man is red.

Small changes such as moving between two activities, can be distressing. Also, big events like holidays, starting or changing school, moving house or Christmas, which create change and upheaval, can cause anxiety. My son really struggled with World Book Day, for example, because everyone was dressed differently and the events of the day were different.

Explanation for children:

Today might be a very tough day for that little boy or girl. I know you look forward to special days, like Christmas, because there are new and fun things to do. They don’t feel the same sometimes. If things are different, sometimes they feel very, very frightened – like something bad has happened, even if it is a good surprise. You can help them by being kind and maybe by doing an activity that they like to do a lot with them. That will make them feel safer.

explaining autism to younger children


Explanation for adults:

When one or more of the issues above becomes just too overwhelming, autistic people may have something commonly called a meltdown. It may look like a tantrum, but it is very different. It happens when they are simply too swamped and exhausted by having to manage all the above. They may scream and cry, they may be unaware of people around them, and dangers around them. Sometimes they may completely shut down, during or after a period of high distress, and seem to be completely unresponsive.

Explanation for children:

There is no easy way to explain a meltdown. Sometimes that little boy or girl gets very, very upset or frightened about something that may seem fun or easy to you. But that is because it doesn’t feel the same way to them. I know it might be scary for you if they start crying and shouting about something you like, or for no reason at all. Instead of being angry with them or scared, you should make sure they are with an adult who can help and give them time and space to calm down. They are not doing it to be naughty or because they don’t like you. They just feel very scared, alone and sad. You can help by waiting for them to calm down and being kind when they feel better.

Final thoughts…

This is by no means a comprehensive list, and my suggestions about how to word things for younger children are only based on my own experiences with my son and daughter. Hopefully, they are still useful for some parents, who may struggle to know what to say if their child is upset or anxious about some of the issues above.


Tips for explaining autism for younger children

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11 thoughts on “Tips for explaining autism to younger neurotypical children

  1. Important post. My daughter is in reception with a child who I’m not sure if he has autism or something on the spectrum but she asked me why he behaves the way he does as he hit her once. I have to admit I struggled with how to handle this sensitively as normally you wouldn’t condone hitting! I tried to explain to her that he doesn’t always see things the way we do and how although he probably just wants to join in with everyones games he probably doesn’t feel like he can or maybe he’s a bit scared. I tried to explain to her that she can still ask him to play but sometimes he won’t want to and maybe sometimes he will. It’s funny since that conversation she suddenly wants to invite him to her birthday party and she sometimes plays with him now…according to her x

  2. This post is brilliant, so so informative and will help so many parents to explain autism to their children. In fact, this post has taught me a lot too and I certainly feel more equipped now to answer any questions my son may have in the future about autism. This post was linked up to #BlogCrush as someone’s favourite. Congratulations xx

  3. This is a great post and I think it would be really good way for reception teachers and assistants to explain about autism to young children at school. For older kids (aged 7 – 12) we found the book “Can I tell you about asperger’s syndrome?” really useful. There’s also a similar one called, “Can I tell you about autism?”. It’s designed for a child on the spectrum to lend to their NT peers to help them gain more understanding and acceptance. Our three NT kids wound it helpful to read as it made them realise that their brother wasn’t simply being awkward and intentionally difficult at times! #spectrumsunday

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