It’s what you don’t say to a person with autism that counts

It’s summer, and I decided to start a series featuring my best loved posts about raising a son with autism.



What not to say to a person with autism–literally

Think before you speak.

Think before you speak to a person with autism.


Last weekend, I took Matthew, to the grocery store with me, and while we waited in line, I ran to get a gallon of milk. When I got back, Matthew looked upset. “Are you OK?” I asked. “Not really,” he replied sheepishly. “Something happened, but we’re not going to talk about it.” I glanced at the people around us, looking for some clue of what “happened,” but no one looked perturbed. We left the store, and as we were putting our bags in the car, Matthew asked “What does it mean when someone says “Shame on you?”.


It occurred to me that one of the most demanding aspects of parenting a child with autism is not only translating nuanced statements such as these, but making sure you don’t use them yourself.

Here is a list of 21 things NOT to say to a person with an autism spectrum disorder, compiled with the help of members of my facebook autism forum:

1. Shame on you.

2. How many times do I have to tell you?

3. Maybe (or maybe next time).

4. If you are good all week, I’ll give you blah blah blah.

5. What is wrong with you?

6. Focus.

7. It’s not loud to me.

8. I told you yesterday.

9. Wait just a minute. (Unless it’s truly just a minute)

10. I promise. (Unless you are absolutely sure you can do what you are promising.)

11. It’s not a big deal that your Pokemon cards are out of order.

12. Look me in the eye.

13. Stop obsessing.(It’s like saying “stop breathing” to a child with autism.)

14. Idioms of any kind, such as “It’s raining cat’s and dogs.”

15. Shhh! You need to be quiet in here. (The guaranteed response to that is, “BUT I DON’T WANT TO BE QUIET!” at max volume.)

16. You need to wait.

17. You’d better behave.

18. Look at me when I am talking to you.

19. “Go ahead and ______ . See what happens.” (sarcasm, however slight, is bad. Autistic or not. )

20. It doesn’t matter, you still need to…

21. Do you want a time out?

Here is how I translated “Shame on you” to Matthew, though I never found out what happened:

“When someone say’s “Shame on you,” they are telling you that you did something that they think you should not have done. For example, one time when I was 10 years old, I took a piece of candy from the store without paying, and a lady saw me and said, “Shame on you.”

Next week: translations for the rest of the comments on the list.

Do you have something to contribute to the list?


Do you have questions? Contact me HERE and I will do my very best to help.


More about our family’s story here HERE. Read reviews of my book HERE.


About the author

Laura Shumaker is a nationally recognized writer, autism and disabilities advocate. Her essays have appeared in many places, including the New York Times, CNN, NPR, and in a popular autism and disabilities blog for The San Francisco Chronicle. She’s the mother of three terrific sons, and her oldest son, Matthew, is the subject of her book A Regular Guy: Growing Up with Autism.

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