Recently, I was out taking my service dog for a walk when an approximately 3-to 4-year-old child came up and asked if she could pet him. I asked him to sit and allowed her to pet him. “He’s a very nice puppy," she said. “He’s so soft.”
“Thank you," I said. “Have you ever seen a puppy in a vest?”
“No,” she said.
“Well," I said, "when a puppy has a vest on, it means he has a special job. He is helping somebody or being trained to help somebody.”
“Wow," she said. “Why do you have the puppy?
“I have something called Autism.” I said.
“What is Autism?”
At this point I was quiet as she gazed into my eyes expectantly. Young children do tend to ask why I have a service dog, or why the dog gets to go into public places such as restaurants and stores, and their pet dog does not. Explaining a diagnosis like autism to young children can be very challenging because it is so abstract, not to mention there are such varying levels of functioning. Generally, when a child asks me why I have a service dog, I will tell them to go to the local library and ask for certain children’s books about autism. (I keep a list of them - see below) The trouble is, there are far more children’s books available which depict characters who fit the diagnostic profile of severe to profound autism as opposed to a higher level of cognition, average to above average verbal skills, and higher social awareness.
To answer the child’s question, I finally settled on simply telling her that, “My brain works differently than yours does.” After a minute, I asked her if she watched Sesame Street. “Yeah,” she said, smiling.
“Do you know who Julia is?”
“Julia has autism,” I said.
She petted Thomas and talked to him a bit more and after a few minutes, her mother thanked me, and they went on their way. I walked the opposite way with Thomas, and in that instant, I thanked Heaven for Sesame Street and thought all the way home about just how much representation truly matters to children in the media. I was not a lot like Julia. I did not have the high presence of stereotypic behaviors, the repetition of phrases, the preoccupation with lining up toys, but there were other diagnostic indicators I knew I shared with her like the love of routine, consistency, and having to be directly shown how to play with toys or other children. I wondered too, what the conversation would be like at the dinner table that night, and I hoped I helped a little. “You’re a good boy, T.” I said when we reached the front door. I scratched his ears, and we went inside.
Adria's Book Recommendations:
- My Brother Charlie by Holly Robinson Peete and Ryan Elizabeth Peete
- Charlie Makes a Splash by Holly Robinson Peete and RJ Peete
- Leah's Voice by Lori DeMonia
- All My Stripes by Shaina Rudolph and Danielle Royer
- A Friend for Henry by Jenn Bailey
- Ethan's Story: My Life with Autism by Ethan Rice
- A Friend Like Simon by Kate Gaynor
Nassim, A. (2023). Thank heaven for long walks with a dog, and Sesame Street, too. https://www.iidc.indiana.edu/irca/articles/long-walks-and-sesame-street.html