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Children with Autism can discuss difficult life events

As the mother of a 12-year old girl, if I could say one thing to parents just entering this mysterious culture of life with a child with an autism spectrum disorder, it would be this: Never – even in the darkest, most frustrating times with your children – assume that they are oblivious to what is going on in the family, and do not doubt that the day will come when your children will find some way to reach out and tell you what is on their minds or in their hearts.

Annie’s father and I were divorced when she was three. When she was about five years old, someone questioned whether we ever asked Annie how she felt about the divorce. At the time, there was no possibility of having a conversation with her about it, and we assumed she was completely unaware of the circumstances of how our family situation had changed.

Over the years, there were times when Annie would burst into tears for no apparent reason. Bobbie Vaughn, from the Center for Autism and Related Disabilities, mentioned that she was in Annie’s classroom one day, that she appeared to be upset and was saying “Mom and Dad” repeatedly. Many times Annie blurts out seemingly irrelevant words when she gets upset about something, so in this case, I was not sure if there was a particular contextual relevance.



Annie picks the topic card that she wants to talk about with mom.

During these times, Annie would get a choice of topics and an opportunity to discuss the topic(s) of her choice. Bobbie’s suggestions for topics included things that Annie blurted out or referred to in her self-talk. She suggested topics like toys, puberty, birthdays, mom and dad, and school. Bobbie strongly urged us to obtain photographs of each specific topic to ensure that Annie understood the topic. The idea was to respect that these were things Annie had feelings about, and to give her a time of day when she knew she could talk about them (rather than letting her talk out loud when they crossed her mind). The hypothesis was that this might reduce the amount of inappropriate blurting out she did during moments of distress. Bobbie pointed out that Annie is no different than other children who experience troubling events their lives, it’s just that Annie cannot express them as readily as other children nor can she determine the socially appropriate times. Bobbie suggested that her teacher and I, in our respective settings, set aside time during the day when Annie could choose the topic most on her mind at that moment. Now, Annie takes her own pictures of people and things that are important to her, and she uses them to think about, or express her feelings about big topics on her mind.
We dare to dream of possibilities for Annie’s future that we never imagined. She has found ways to tell us more about herself, and the message is the most powerful one she could deliver: “There is a bright, thinking, feeling human being in here. Help me find the tools and help me develop the ability to express who I am.”

~Jean MacNeill

Sample Topic Cards


Annie celebrates the end of fifth grade with her speech therapist, teacher and other kids during the "fifth grade clap-out" parade around the school.

As a part of the positive behavior support process, Bobbie indicated that Annie needed a replacement for “blurting out” during class. It was possible that there were things on her mind that she needed to discuss. Bobbie suggested that we create “topic cards” containing pictures and labels of topics that seem to have importance for Annie, and set aside times during the school day and at home to bring out the cards.