The internet is full of advice articles for parents. So just for once, this one’s for children themselves!
I can’t believe I’m saying this, but this is my fiftieth article for Autistic Not Weird. So I thought I’d do something special for it. I used to be a schoolteacher (and now I work with autistic students outside of schools), and this is the advice I would give to children growing up on the autism spectrum.
Something important before we begin:
The hardest thing about writing this article is that all autistic children are different. This is because everyone is different, whether you’re autistic or not. So it’s really hard writing something for all autistic children, and nobody will ever get it perfect!
Because this is written for everyone, some of this advice will be useful to you and some of it won’t. I suggest you read this through with a parent (or an adult you trust) and talk about which parts of this are useful to you.
And you should probably learn a bit about me before we begin. My name’s Chris, and I’m autistic. I didn’t know about my autism until I was an adult, because not many people knew about it when I was a child. But now I travel all over the world teaching people about autism, I help autistic young people who can’t go to school, and occasionally I write books too (here’s a happy book about autism for all ages). [All links open in new windows, so they won’t interrupt your reading!] I also have a YouTube account, and I’ll put a link to it at the end.
Some of this advice is what helped me when I was your age. Some of it is what helped my autistic friends, students or godchildren. I hope the advice helps you too.
Oh, and fifty is a big number. So you don’t have to read all of this at once. Just read a few at a time if you want!
Here we go.
Fifty pieces of advice from an autistic man, written for autistic children.
1) First things first – the world’s a better place because you’re a part of it.
2) Just because you’re different to other people doesn’t mean you’re “wrong”. The human race needs people who are different. Most useful inventions in history were probably invented by autistic or dyslexic people.
3) The world is full of beautiful things, and autism helps us to notice many of the beautiful things that other people don’t.
4) I say “play to your strengths” over and over again when I talk to autistic people. It means “learn what you’re good at, and find chances to do what you’re good at”. As you grow up, playing to your strengths will help you a lot.
5) Everyone has strengths, and everyone has challenges. But I don’t call them “weaknesses”. I call them “targets for improvement”. If you struggle with something, it doesn’t mean those struggles last forever, and you can still learn how to become better at them.
6) You’re allowed to make mistakes! In fact, mistakes are a major part of learning. (I have three university degrees, and would never have achieved it without making mistakes and learning from them.)
7) Use your own methods if you need to. Different methods work for different people, and sometimes autistic people need to do things differently to others. This isn’t a bad thing though, especially if it helps you become brilliant at something!
8) Go at your own pace. If you need to slow down to understand something, then slow down. You can also speed up if you feel confident, but don’t go so fast that you miss things out!
9) If you’re struggling at school, don’t worry – it doesn’t last forever, even if it feels that way. Look at this graph:
10) You know how so many schools have the “popular” kids, and that often the “popular kids” are bullies? Those people are less popular than you think… and once you’re an adult, nobody around you cares how cool anyone was back in school.
11) If something’s wrong, tell an adult. Please please please don’t feel like you’re “not allowed to”.
12) If you tell an adult something’s wrong and they don’t listen, tell a better adult. And don’t just tell them about the problem- tell them the other adult didn’t listen to you.
13) Sometimes, being the odd one out sucks. Sometimes though, it has its advantages. When I was a child, I’d come up with ideas that nobody else did, and my imagination was incredible.
14) Your opinion is valuable. If other people won’t listen to your opinions, it’s them who’s wrong and not you.
15) It may be difficult, but learn how other people work. How they talk, what hints they use, what they like and what they don’t like, what helps them and what doesn’t. School intelligence is great, but knowing about people is another type of intelligence and it’s very helpful.
16) In the same way, learn about other people’s comfort zones. Learn what makes them comfortable, and what makes them uncomfortable. That way, it’ll be easier to help them.
17) I always struggled with knowing what was “appropriate” and what was “inappropriate”. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I realised that they’re different for each person! Right and wrong are usually the same, but what’s “appropriate” changes depending on who you’re talking to.
18) If someone demands eye contact, stare at their nose.
19) Some conversations are like scripts, and people are only saying what they’re supposed to say. (The most common example is “Hello.” / “Hi.” / “How are you?” / “I’m fine thanks, how are you?” / “I’m fine thanks.”) It seems pointless, but learn these scripts anyway. It’s easier to understand conversations if you know what’s scripted and what’s not.
20) It’s absolutely horrible when people are nasty to you, especially just because you’re different to them. But it could be worse – you could be growing up with their personality! Even though it hurts when people are mean, be grateful you’re the nice person rather than the nasty person.
21) Some people might try to change you into someone you’re not. (For me, it was the bullies trying to make me nasty too.) Don’t change yourself for them. Especially if they wouldn’t change for you.
22) Adults boast all the time about being different and unique. Don’t try too hard to be normal and boring just to please everyone else.
24) Some of us are awesome at mathematics, and some of us struggle. That’s ok, because we’re all different. But the most important part of mathematics is learning how to manage your money. Trust me, you’ll need that skill when you’re older.
25) When you’re angry or upset, take a few extra seconds to think before doing something you regret. Most big mistakes happen because someone does something without thinking first, and you’d be amazed how much just a couple of seconds can help you.
26) Play chess! Especially if you struggle with that last point. It helps you to think your actions through, teaches you how to predict other people’s actions, and it’s great fun when you outsmart someone! (Adults, have a read of this article for more details.)
27) Have your own safe spaces for when you’re feeling exhausted, upset, angry or if you just need time to yourself for a bit. Stay in those spaces for as long as you need, and come out again once you’re better.
28) Make sure people around you know and respect those spaces.
29) You have rights. Every child has rights. Every person has rights. These include the right to be respected, the right to be listened to, and the right to be treated fairly.
30) Everybody feels anxious. Some people are just better at hiding it.
31) Being brave does not mean being afraid of nothing – it means being afraid but facing your fears anyway. So if you feel nervous about something (like talking to your teacher, or going to a new place for the first time), do it anyway. It’ll make you braver.
32) The more times you do something you’re nervous about, the less nervous you’ll get each time. Eventually it’ll barely make you afraid at all! This video tells you what I mean.
33) If you really don’t feel comfortable doing something (or if you don’t like what someone wants you to do), you have the right to say no. The other person might not know you’re uncomfortable.
34) When you say no, you can learn a lot about the other person by how they react. If they try to make you feel guilty for refusing to do something for them, tell an adult you trust.
35) Sometimes people lie because they want something. Sometimes people lie to get money, for example. And I didn’t know this when I was a child, but sadly some people lie just because they think it’s fun. (I know, I don’t understand it either.)
36) There are different levels of friendship. It’s ok to trust some people more than others.
37) Sometimes being a caring, loving person will hurt, because it hurts seeing people sad. Be caring and loving anyway. You’re a better person that way.
38) Whether things in your life are going well, or whether things in your life are not going well, life itself is always an incredible thing.
40) Find things to take responsibility for. Whether it’s something you can do to help people in the classroom, or something you can do at home. The best adults are responsible adults, so it’s good to have early practice at being responsible.
41) Listen to people’s advice. You don’t have to follow all of it (because some people have bad judgement!), but at least listen to people before deciding. If you’re not sure about a person’s advice, ask another person.
42) Don’t just focus on what makes you different from other children. Remember what you have in common with them too. Autistic children have more in common with others than people think.
43) Friendships are built on what people call “common ground” (something two people have in common, like a special interest for example). If you want to find friends, find something you have in common and talk about it.
44) There’s a difference between being alone and being lonely. It’s fine to want time on your own (and some of my loneliest times were when I was surrounded by people who didn’t understand me).
45) If you can’t talk when you’re finding something difficult, have a signal that adults will recognise. It could be something like holding a certain toy in your hand or writing down a special word. Have a talk with your parents and teachers so they know what to look for when you’re stressed.
46) When people talk about “what causes autism”, they’re usually talking a load of rubbish. There are some very silly theories out there about what causes autism, and some of them are dangerous theories. They’re dangerous because they can trick people into thinking we’re damaged, when we’re not.
47) Sometimes people on the news talk about autism like it’s a bad thing, because they’re trying to grab people’s attention. And some charities only talk about the bad sides of autism, because they think it’ll get people to give them more money. None of these means you’re a bad person. Maybe one day these people will start seeing the good sides of autism and talk about them more.
48) We are not faulty, no matter what people tell you. Sometimes we just find it difficult to be the odd ones out, and there are things we struggle with which others don’t. But non-autistic people find things difficult too, so we’re not alone.
49) If you’re the only autistic person you know, autism can feel lonely. But there’s millions of us out there. You’re reading the words of an autistic man in the British East Midlands right now! Even if you don’t know other autistic people, we’re out there.
50) And finally, one last bit of encouragement. When I started school, I had the language skills of a two-year-old. Now I speak in front of big crowds for a living. If you struggle with something as a child, it doesn’t mean you’ll never do it. Practice helps, determination helps, and bravery helps.
I wish all of you the very best as you grow up, and I hope some of this advice has helped you.
And a bit at the end for adults:
Wow, I chose a challenge for my fiftieth article! A warm welcome to those who are reading Autistic Not Weird for the first time, and an enormous thank you to those who have followed me for a while. (For those who haven’t joined our Facebook community or YouTube channel, you’re more than welcome.
But wow, it’s been a journey. After three and a half years [at time of writing], 1,800,000 page hits, 85,000 Facebook followers, fifty-three speaking engagements, two books and three awards, my life is a world apart from where it used to be before I opened up about being autistic.
More than anything else, I’d like to thank my Patreon supporters. Autistic Not Weird became so big that I literally had to quit a job to write for it, and it’s thanks to them that I was able to do this without losing out financially. If anybody else would like to support my work (in exchange for perks and rewards!), my Patreon page is here.
All the best to all of you, and I hope your children gain a few useful tips from this article that they can use as they grow up.
Underdogs, a near-future dystopia series where the heroes are teenagers with special needs, is a character-driven war story which pitches twelve people against an army of millions, balancing intense action with a deeply developed neurodiverse cast.
Chris Bonnello is a national and international autism speaker, available to lead talks and training sessions from the perspective of an autistic former teacher. For further information please click here (opens in new window). Autistic Not Weird on Facebook