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BY Sara

Talking To Your Child’s Classmates About Special Needs: 5 Things you should know

As an aide and an auntie to a spectacular middle-schooler on the autism spectrum families are approaching me as to how best talk to their child’s classmates about their diverse needs.

Over the years i have com up with a few important themes that should be addressed.

1. Talk to the class about labels

The choice to disclose a label of a diagnosis is totally personal. Many self-advocates describe themselves as “autistic” or “having autism” while others prefer to say “on the spectrum” or “ASD.”  Others still prefer to use no label at all.

I strongly believe that if you are living with something 24/7 either as an individual or as a parent, it should be you that gets to dictate the language that’s used to describe it. Give your child’s school community some language to help understand and appreciate your child’s experience.

I know one family who addressed the label of autism in order to define it and acknowledge that the kids may have heard this word in relationship to their son, but then they clearly stated that they prefer not to use that particular label, as he himself didn’t use it, and for them it wasn’t specific enough to describe their son’s needs.

Noise2. Sensory specifics

In order to be able to cultivate empathy within a classroom, kids need to be able to not only imagine what it might feel like for their classmate with diverse needs, but be able to consider an experience of theirs that might be similar. Touch, taste, smell, sight and hearing are all fairly tangible things. The more specific you can be about some of your child’s behaviors and the sensory experience that may be causing it, the more her classmates can give context to unexpected happenings.

Then flip it to them: have you ever used headphones that were turned up way too loud? If you were wearing them all the time, how hard do you think it would be for you to be able to you to concentrate on other things? Have conversations? Do your school work?


The concept of neurpolasticity can be grasped at any age. It’s easy to explain it as a really cool area of study in which doctors and scientists are doing a lot of research. There are now beautiful videos of neurons firing on You Tube.

Kids need to know that the brain has the ability to retrain neural pathways and make connections it’s never made before. They should be reminded that in this way, our school communities impact all of our brains – how we feel, how we treat each other, and how we learn. Our behavior and our interactions with others are training all of our brains to either connect more or connect less; we can all afford to learn more about each other by respecting our own individual learning and processing differences.

4. Put it in writing

One thing we’ve always done that’s been really successful is gathering this information and sending it home with the kids to give to their parents.

We found that many parents in our community wanted to help their child appreciate and understand our loved one, but were unsure as to how to frame it. By giving them a hand out of what we discussed, they were able to encourage their own child’s questions, and feel empowered to answer.

5. Encourage questions

Classmates of your son or daughter should be encouraged to ask questions. Depending on the age of the kids, it may be useful to filter questions through the teacher, or another third party. We found it beneficial one year to set up a question box; another time it was much less formal. Now that my nephew is a middle-schooler, he’s pretty confident answering specific questions himself. The important thing is that the conversation should be open, and moderated by everyone in your child’s school community.

Written on November 1, 2011 by:

Sara Winter is a mom of two boys and the founder of a recreational application for kids with autism to connect with one another.
  • Sara,
    This is great! We have addressed these things with the teachers in writing, but not classmates’ parents. How did we miss that? It makes so much sense!
    Always love your very informative, thoughtful, and respectful articles!

  • I’m so glad you found it helpful Lauri. We really found that by including his classmate’s parents, it really solidifed the conversation and increased accountability across his school community.

  • Hello,
    I have written a series of children’s books for kids age 5 to 12.   Madi the main character has CP & is non-verbal although it is not mentioned in the books rather the stories focus on the child hood high jinks of Madi & her brother Colin.  Madi uses a Dynavox in the series.  My books are sold internationally via my web site as well as on line specialty book stores and local book stores.  I am doing events for Chapters Indigo & the school boards.
    I am contacting you because with the new AAC and Autism awareness there  is a very young population that would relate to my books making the  AAC device & child using it “normal” rather then centering them out.  Technology is a hot topic even with the little guys and how cool would it be to have a book that has a character using a Dynavox or iPad app to communicate in a classroom where a real child is using one.
    I have the books in pdf format too and would love to send you part of the stories to see if they interest your publicity, education or disability department.  The first book is called “So Don’t & See What Happens” the second one is “Sour Puss” (part of those proceeds go to Make-A-Wish International) and the 3rd is “The Cottage Tooth Fairy”.

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