Sharing an autism diagnosis with extended family members can be difficult for most parents. You’ve just gone through the emotional process of getting your child evaluated and diagnosed with autism.
Not to mention, you’ve finally reached a point where you accept that your child has autism. And now you have to turn around and share this news with other people who may not react the way you would prefer.
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Accepting Autism can be Hard for Family Members
In theory, your family members should be the most supportive and encouraging during this difficult period and you would think that sharing your child’s diagnosis with friends might be more difficult. But everyone knows this isn’t always the case.
Autism awareness has grown quite a bit but misinformation still exists. Some people may feel uncomfortable with the differences in social communication. Others may feel embarrassed at the thought of having an autistic family member.
Or if your child is high-functioning, it may not be immediately apparent to others that your child even has autism. This may compel certain family members to tell you that you’re overreacting or “labeling” your child.
These scenarios are hurtful but to some extent, they should be anticipated. Everyone absorbs difficult news in their own way and everyone will take the news of the diagnosis a little bit differently.
[Related: Great Gift Ideas for Children with Autism]
Tips for Dealing with Negative Reactions
Sometimes, the news of a diagnosis can come as a surprise to extended family members. They don’t live with you and they don’t see the daily signs and symptoms of autism that you see.
The initial conversation may be uncomfortable or strained but it’s still important to share this news with your family. Here are some tips on how you can share your child’s diagnosis with extended family members:
Lower your expectations
This is a tough one for most people because they expect that their family will always support them no matter what. But it’s best to anticipate a range of reactions from family members.
Some family members may feel sad while others may reject the diagnosis altogether. An autism diagnosis challenges their vision of your child’s future and this can be scary for many people.
Ask for their support and let them know what you need but allow them to express and process their feelings.
Explain the basics of autism
If there is no prior family history of autism, some family members may not even be entirely sure what autism is. Explain the basics and how autism impacts your child’s social skills, behaviors, and interests. Emphasize that autism is a spectrum disorder and that the severity of symptoms will vary from person to person.
Explain why a diagnosis is important
Many people are concerned that having a “label” will negatively impact children and hurt their self-esteem. In reality, the opposite is often true.
It can be a relief to put a name to your child’s struggles and to know that they’re actually pretty common. And most importantly, an autism diagnosis will make your child eligible for services and therapies that can help them.
Offer them resources but don’t push it
The Amaze organization offers a Grandparent’s Guide to Autism as well as resources for siblings and extended family members. If they prefer books, Making Peace With Autism by Susan Senator is a great place to start.
However, if they aren’t interested in books or online resources at this point, don’t push it. Maybe they’ll come back to it when they’re ready, maybe they won’t.
Talk to other parents who understand
Making sense of your child’s diagnosis is overwhelming and scary. And navigating difficult reactions from family members only complicates this.
One of the best things you can do for yourself is to spend time with other special needs parents. They’ve dealt with misunderstandings and insensitive comments just like you.
It helps to have someone who understands what you’re going through and who you can vent to.
Sharing an autism diagnosis with family members can be challenging because you never know how other people will react. We all want to believe our family will be there to support us through the difficult moments.
But sadly, certain family members may not be able to show their support in the way you would like. Everyone is entitled to process their emotions over the diagnosis in their own way. Just remember that their reactions are a reflection of how they feel and not a reflection of you or your child.
And of course, sharing the diagnosis with family members is just the first step. In the next blog post, we’ll discuss how to disclose this to friends and acquaintances.