How can we explain his brother's autism to our four-year-old son?

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Photo by Mel Rowling, used with Creative Commons license.
We've got two boys. My stepson, A, is 11 and autistic (he's very intelligent, pretty high functioning, but his only language is a jumble of repetitive quotes from movies and random stuff he overhears) and my younger son, M, is four. M has just started to question why A isn't "like his friend's big brother." When M asked "Why won't A play with me? Does he not like me?" it struck us that we really didn't know how to explain autism in a way that a four-year-old would understand. I'd love some advice — anyone know any good kids books or resources that would help? — Gemma

Do you have any words of advice or know of a book or two that can help Gemma's situation?

  1. Hey there! Our precious 5 year old, Emma, is autistic. She is also very high functioning and leans towards the Asperger's side of the spectrum scale. I'm actually a teacher and Emma attends the after school preschool program where I work. I wanted a neat way to share with my students/her after school friends what exactly autism is. So, I compiled a list of children's books about autism and pictures of Emma. I simply read the stories, including discussions on how sometimes children with autism look JUST LIKE everyone else and they are just as much fun to play with. We talked about the social differences but more importantly about how we can show love to autistic children who cannot handle lots of noise or long talks. My precious students actually made a verbal lists of all the ways they could love and play with Emma and it has gone amazingly smooth. You can also try writing a social story using cartoon images about how autistic children think, act and what makes them happy. Remember, autism isn't a simple diagnosis like asthma or anything so little ones need to be told things like "they think differently" "they react differently" "They might like different things because…." "They need love and fun like everyone else, ect.." And most importantly have fun with it. The more pictures the better. Good luck and let me know if you want anymore info.
    :)
    Also heres links to great books that could be read to your little one.
    *A Friend Like Simon
    *Since We're Friends: An Autism Picture Book
    *The Autism Acceptance Book: Being a Friend to Someone With Autism
    *The Social Skills Picture Book Teaching play, emotion, and communication to children with autism
    *This one will help you write the social story if you wish to do so: The New Social Story Book, Revised and Expanded 10th Anniversary Edition: Over 150 Social Stories that Teach Everyday Social Skills to Children with Autism or Asperger's Syndrome, and their Peers
    *Everybody Is Different: A Book for Young People Who Have Brothers or Sisters With Autism
    *My Brother Kevin Has Autism
    *Andy and His Yellow Frisbee
    *My Brother Sammy is Special
    *In My Mind: The World through the Eyes of Autism
    *My students really liked this book: Tacos Anyone? An Autism Story
    *The Girl Who Spoke with Pictures: Autism Through Art
    *I Am Utterly Unique: Celebrating the Strengths of Children with Asperger Syndrome and High-Functioning Autism
    *A Is for Autism F Is for Friend: A Kid's Book for Making Friends with a Child Who Has Autism

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    • thank you for this list. i teach special education, including several students with autism, so it's great to have a list of books to look into.

      • No problem! We love our little Emma!

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    • Sarah, wow! Thanks for taking the time to write up such a comprehensive list of stuff.
      Really useful.

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    • Are the twins identical or fraternal? How very interesting. I've never heard of that before.

      • They are fraternal twins, a boy and a girl. The girl helps her brother out a lot and sticks up for him. She is also one of the few people he will really listen to so she uses him to do stuff that she would get in trouble for like taking ice cream out of the freezer :) The book was/is a big help to the youngest.

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  2. All Cats Have Asperger Syndrome
    was a great help in helping my Dad understand why my nephew is the way that he is

    as a special needs teacher I would also not underestimate the ability of your 4 yr old to understand his older brothers condition and tell him about it straight up, using proper terminology. explain what his older brother can and cannot do, his likes and dislikes and that how he id different but you love them both.
    You may be pleasantly surprised by how quickly he shows understanding and even stands up for his big brother when explaining to friends about Autism

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    • I just wanted to echo that sometimes my 4 year old blows me away with what he is capable of understanding. Sometimes it takes two weeks of explaining the same thing over and over, but then it will suddenly click. I lost my grandmother this year and while it is a different set of explanations, my 4-year-old surprises the pants off me with how astutely he can now rephrase ideas about death and mourning in his own words, which shows that he's able to see how things affect other people that he isn't going through.

      I don't know if that is completely unhelpful, but I guess combining the advice here, like being frank and descriptive, along with 1. continuous repetition and 2. gently correcting him if the way he phrases either the questions or his understanding of the answers comes off as hurtful. For a while, my 4 year old liked to announce every time I walked into the room, "Your grandma is dead! She died! She's not here anymore!" So I know there can be a realm of teaching and learning dedicated to the way we talk about things without being hurtful, which doesn't even exist yet with new subjects.

  3. Definitely explain the truth to the younger boy, and and help him understand and support his older brother. So many times have I seen younger siblings after their parents passed, as the last supporting legs.

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    • We have always been very careful to truthfully answer any questions M has about A. He knows that his brother is "autistic" and that he likes different things to M and has to have things a certain way.

      The boys do love each other(they have both said as much, often)and like to spend time in each others company. We do hope this bond stays as strong as they grow up.
      M has said to us that "When I am a big man like Daddy, I will drive A to the beach in my shiny blue car." I really hope he does!

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      • That's so cute! My great uncle Gary has down syndrome, and his little sister is the one that is always around to help him if he needs it.

  4. There is a wonderfully funny blog out there called stark.raving.mad.mommy which talks a great deal about autism in children, how to talk to children about special needs and other interesting things. I've learned a ton from reading it and it might help you too. http://www.starkravingmadmommy.com

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  5. this entry in the blog mom not otherwise specified is the story of a mom of an autistic kid going into her son's elementary school classroom to chat with the kids about her son and autism. i have an aspie kid, and found this to be one of the best reads on helping children understand spectrum disorders. it's truly amazing.

    http://momnos.blogspot.com/2010/03/on-being-hair-dryer-kid-in-toaster.html

    2 agree
  6. Hello, I am Eileen Miller, the author of The Girl Who Spoke With Pictures. I am flattered to see we've made your book list.

    May I suggest, Apples for Cheyenne written by Elizabeth Gerlach/Illustrated by Kim Miller. It is a children's book about Autism, Friendship and Horses. It could be a way to introduce a discussion about children with "different needs, but all the same."

    Another book that you might consider as a parent is my newest book, "Behind the Pictures," Autism: Strategies for Change.

    Thank you for your consideration,

    Eileen Miller

  7. Wonderful suggestions for books!! Thanks so much everybody. I know I am catching up on this a bit after the fact but the ideas are all helpful AND I really like the idea of going to school and talking with kids with my son!

  8. My 7 year old son has autism, and my five year old is adhd. My 5 yr old will get frustrated at the certain way his brother Absolutely has to have his crayons cars monster trucks etc…all lined up. Ace and Cash are the names, Cash being the younger boy is perceptive his brother is different but his patience run out when he sees his older brother Ace melt down. They are close and it is time to explain to Cash about his older brother.
    Thank you for all the helping advice both directly and through comments.
    All of us with these great Angels understand all this advice truly helps.
    Thanks to all

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