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Alike, Not Less: 50 Ways Children with Autism are Like All Children

We who live and work with children with autism step up the dialogue about what makes our kids different from typically developing children. And we must talk about it because it is the basis for spurring the kind of action we need to be able to equalize some of these differences, to teach our kids the skills they’ll need to join the flow of life and community as productive adults. But this is only half of the discussion.

A few years ago, I came across an article touting 50 tips for calming an angry “Aspergers (sic) child.” Any parent or teacher of a child with Asperger’s will glom onto a list like that, right? And much of the counsel in the piece was sound. But here’s what got me: The article used the term Aspergers child (or Aspergers youngster) 26 times; the advice contained in nearly all those instances applied to all kids.

The article stated that “Aspergers children” reflect their parents’ moods, have trouble remaining calm amid chaos, respond well to creative play outlets and fun ways to blow off energy, etc. And they do - as do many, if not most, kids. The biggest take-away from such a list should be the realization that our children with autism or Asperger’s have so much in common with ‘typical’ kids, and we’ll see that when we step back from being 100 per cent focused on their differences.

“Different, not less” was the riveting line from the movie Temple Grandin, the way Temple’s mother insisted her daughter be viewed. Our kids’ differences are easy to see, often glaring. But if we neglect looking in at least equal part for their similarities to other children, we will never see the whole child. It’s through those similarities that your child or student will forge connections to others, and those connections are what will determine in such great part their success in life as a dynamic, self-sufficient adult. It’s through those similarities that we see that their autism is only part of who they are, not all of who they are, not to blame for every one of their quirks and foibles, not the source of every one of their abilities and charms.

In that spirit, I offer a list called “Alike, Not Less - 50 Ways a Child with Autism is Like All Children.”

Like all children:

  • He has personal interests.
  • He has fears.
  • He has preferences.
  • He has ideas.
  • He has dreams.
  • He has feelings that are hurt by the unkind actions and words of others.
  • He has a self-image, also influenced by the actions and words of others.
  • He has a sense of humor, which may not be the same as yours.
  • He is growing; his body is changing, his brain is developing.
  • He will reach puberty; his hormones will kick in.
  • He will experience the mood shifts of adolescence.
  • He will have wet dreams; she will menstruate.

Like all children:

  • She makes mistakes.
  • She forgets stuff.
  • She remembers stuff - beware!
  • She gets tired - physically, mentally, emotionally.
  • She gets cranky when she’s tired - physically, mentally, emotionally.
  • She can’t know what she hasn’t been taught.
  • She needs instruction, encouragement, and practice to form a good habit or break an undesirable one.
  • She needs to be able to trust you.
  • She needs to feel safe.
  • Until she feels safe, she can’t learn to trust others.
  • She is influenced by adult example.
  • Her attention span is greater for some things than for others.
  • She can learn.

Like all children:

  • He needs adequate sleep.
  • He needs good medical care.
  • He will do significantly better in school (cognitively and behaviorally) if he eats a nutritious breakfast.
  • He will do significantly better in his afternoon classes and activities if he eats a nutritious lunch.
  • He needs unstructured time to dream.
  • He needs a certain amount of privacy.
  • He needs his good efforts rewarded, by word or deed.
  • He needs you not just to provide food, clothing, and shelter, but also to do so in a respectful manner.
  • He needs you to take good care of yourself, so you can take good care of him. 

Like all children:

  • She needs to play.
  • She likes to play with toys - although her definition of ‘toy’ and ‘play’ and ‘the right way’ to play with toys may not match yours.
  • She needs to be taught things she cannot learn through play, such as traffic safety and cooking.
  • She needs to hear more praise than criticism - every day.
  • She needs to feel heard.
  • She grieves when she loses something significant to her. Her grief may not look like yours would.
  • She wants to feel valued.
  • She needs ways to contribute meaningfully.
  • She needs to experience the natural world in all its wet, dry, hot, cold, rough, gooshy smells and touches and sensations and sounds.

Like all children:

  • He will develop his self-image built on dualities: good/bad, smart/stupid, attractive/homely.
  • He will defend himself when emotionally, verbally, or physically cornered by lying, lashing out, evading, or by any other means available to him.
  • He needs you to answer all of his questions, regardless of whether you find them silly or tiresome.
  • He needs adults who remember what it felt like to be a kid.
  • He needs adults who will explain the tough things like death and sex.
  • He needs long-term relationships with caring adults.
  • He needs spaces or places where he feels he belongs.

“Different, not less” is not a useful duality when the light it shines on our kids leaves most of what’s important in the shadows. Being different (not less) in some aspects of our children’s humanity in no way negates the multitudinous characteristics they share with all children, all the ways in which they are alike, not less. 

Ellen is author of Ten Things Every Child with Autism Wishes You Knew and three other award-winning books on autism. Read excerpts at

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