Managing “The Talk” – When and how to discuss a diagnosis of neurodiversity with your child

Managing “The Talk” – When and how to discuss a diagnosis of neurodiversity with your child

  • Receiving an autism or an ADHD diagnosis is a significant moment for parents. Even if it confirms long-entertained suspicions, obtaining the final black-on-white confirmation is another step in realising that your child is different to other children and that life is taking you on a different path than the one you had planned.

    Having struggled with accepting, understanding and adjusting to the reality of their child’s neurodiversity, parents may find it difficult to discuss the diagnosis with them, often citing fears of “labelling the child”, “overwhelming them”, or – if the child seems happy at home and in school – “creating a problem where there isn’t one”. Thus, children often hear the words “autism” or “ADHD” spoken over their heads in consultation rooms, or whispered between parents, long before they are made aware of their diagnosis.

    When is the right time to tell a child they are neurodivergent?

    Lea Ibell, freelance writer and mother of three, argues we should talk to children, even very young children, as soon as they notice they are different: “My eldest son was strongly affected by ADHD and sensory-motor difficulties. He couldn’t assess his strength, control his movements, or manage his impulses and moods, so he often hurt other children. He would then cry because kids at nursery ran away from him, and playdates often went terribly wrong. It was obvious to me that I had to explain to him why this was happening, so he doesn’t blame himself and develop low self-esteem; so he doesn’t internalise others’ view of him. If your child constantly hears children saying he’s mean, he’ll eventually believe it.”

    Lea started the conversation with her three-year-old son using simple language: “We didn’t use the term ADHD but invented our own word: ‘super-active’. I accentuated the positive: that he’s super-strong and super-fast, that he’s full of energy and wants to do a million great things at once, but I also explained why this could cause problems. We used the car metaphor. I’d tell him: ‘your car has such a powerful engine, but the brakes need some work, and brakes are important, so you don’t run people over.’”

    Lea’s instinctive approach to discussing her son’s ADHD with him goes hand in hand with expert recommendations for introducing an autism diagnosis to children: “if they’re asking questions – it’s time to chat”, and “avoid technical terms,” are two tips offered by the National Autistic Society, along with emphasising the child’s strengths during the conversation.

    Lea warns however, against idealising ADHD and playing down the challenges. “There’s no use repeating clichés such as ‘I love you just the way you are’. Obviously, reality is more complex if you’re protecting their siblings from them or giving them pills to change their behaviour. Children see through that. I’m honest about what’s wonderful about ADHD, but also about how it makes our life difficult as a family, and difficult for him.”

    When she introduced medication, Lea again used a child-friendly approach. “I didn’t want him to think we were giving him pills to control him. Luckily, ADHD medication is a stimulant. I explained that the pills help his body stay awake so that he doesn’t have to keep waking it up by running around in class, and that would help him learn and play with friends, which is basically how the pills work.” Now they’re part of the family’s morning routine: he takes his pill, like his dad has his coffee and Lea her vitamins: “We all need to take something to work better.”

    When he was seven, Lea’s son replaced “super-active” with “the grown-up word” – ADHD. Lea told him that with the big word comes responsibility: “He can choose who he shares this information with. Of course, all his teachers are aware of his diagnosis, but in social situations, I leave it to him to decide who to tell and when.”

    For Jack Birkinshaw, the word “autism” was never a secret. “I was diagnosed so young, it’s always been a normality for me. I kind of just grew up knowing. There wasn’t a specific time when I was told.”

    However, Jack struggled to reconcile the diagnosis with his sense of self: “I didn’t really notice I was different,” explains the 25-year-old university graduate, “but whenever I was taken out of class to do an activity related to autism, that’s when I felt different. There’d be a support worker sitting with me at maths and I’d think: ‘why is he sitting next to me and not next to other kids?’. Even though they were trying to support me, it made me feel excluded and I didn’t understand why.”

    Looking back on his schooldays, Jack wishes teachers had been more upfront with him about the connection between his diagnosis and the interventions he was receiving: “I can’t ever remember the word autism being used. Instead they’d say: ‘we noticed you are struggling with…’ I don’t think they were beating about the bush on purpose, but it was almost like they were afraid to explain the diagnosis to me, and I needed them to be clear – to be on my level.”

    Jack describes his journey from knowing the term to understanding the condition: “My mum was always honest with me about my autism, but until I was about 18, I just didn’t get it. Only later was I able to sit and think: ‘that’s when I’ve done this’, or ‘that’s why I do that’.” He now reflects on how he struggled with social situations and friendships: “I used to mask a lot. I’d try and act like other people. Now I know it was my autism.”

    Despite the difficulty with comprehending the diagnosis, Jack doesn’t think he was told too soon: “The fact that I knew from the start was a good thing. It wasn’t this big revelation, and that helped. Another advantage was that I always felt free to discuss it, if it ever came up in a conversation. I never felt any shame. Never felt I had to keep quiet about it. All my friends know I’m autistic.”

    Growing up with his autistic identity has helped Jack relate to other people on the spectrum. Today he works as a personal assistant to a younger autistic person: “He’s more severely affected than me, but I notice certain things that he does that I either do or have done, like how he depends on a routine, or beats his chest a lot, like I used to do as a kid.”

    To parents who hesitate about speaking with their children, Jack says: “I don’t think there’s any point in waiting. If you think your child is autistic, you should get them diagnosed and tell them. It’s important not only for them but for you as a parent as well.”

    More information

    Washington Post article about explaining autism to your child

    Podcast about explaining ADHD to your child, family and friends

    Talking with your child about their Autism diagnosis – Book by Raelene Dundon


    Videos to watch with children:

    Amazing things happen

    Float (Disney+ subscription required)


    Let’s Learn about autism – activity packs by the Autism Education Trust:

    Early Years

    Primary (4-7 years)

    Primary (8-11 years)




Page last updated: 7th April 2023