03/09/2012 02:13 EST | Updated 05/09/2012 05:12 EDT

Making Your Kids Love the Classroom

Have you ever used headphones that were turned up way too loud? If you were wearing them all the time, how hard do you think it would be for you to be able to you to concentrate on other things? Have conversations? Ask questions like these to help kids understand what autism's like.

Now that we're half way through the school year, many families are approaching me asking about what's the best way to talk to their child's classmates about their diverse needs.

As an aide and aunt to a spectacular middle schooler with autism, I've had the "classroom conversation" a few different times, and at different ages, and a few main themes seem to provide the basic framework for this always important discussion.

Give them language: The choice to disclose a label of a diagnosis is totally personal. Many self-advocates describe themselves as "autistic" or "having autism" while others prefer to say "on the spectrum" or "ASD." Others still prefer to use no label at all. I strongly believe that if you are living with something 24/7 either as an individual or as a parent, it should be you who gets to dictate the language that's used to describe it.

I highly recommend giving your child's school community some terms to help understand and appreciate your child's experience. I know one family who addressed the label of autism in order to define it and acknowledge that the kids may have heard this word in relationship to their son. But then, they clearly stated that they prefer not to use that particular label, as he himself didn't use it, and for them it wasn't specific enough to describe their son's needs.

Sensory specifics: In order to be able to cultivate empathy within a classroom, kids need to be able to not only imagine what it might feel like for their classmate with diverse needs, but also be able to consider an experience of theirs that might be similar.

Touch, taste, smell, sight and hearing are all fairly tangible things. The more specific you can be about your child's behaviour, and the sensory experience that may be causing it, the more her classmates can give context to unexpected happenings. Then flip it to them: "Have you ever used headphones that were turned up way too loud? If you were wearing them all the time, how hard do you think it would be for you to be able to you to concentrate on other things? Have conversations? Do your school work?"

Neuroplasticity: The concept of neuroplasticity can be grasped at any age. It's easy to explain it as a really cool area of study in which doctors and scientists are doing a lot of research. There are now beautiful videos of neurons firing on YouTube.

Kids need to know that the brain has the ability to retrain neural pathways, and make connections it's never made before. They should be reminded that in this way, our school communities impact all of our brains -- how we feel, how we treat each other, and how we learn.

Our behaviour and interactions with others are training all of our brains to either connect more or connect less; we can all afford to learn more about each other by respecting our own individual learning and processing differences.

Put it in writing: One thing we've always done that's been really successful is gathering this information, and sending it home with the kids to give to their parents. We found that many parents in our community wanted to help their child appreciate, and understand our loved one, but were unsure as to how to frame it. By giving them a hand, they were able to encourage their own child's questions, and feel empowered to answer.

Encourage questions: Classmates of your son or daughter should be encouraged to ask questions. Depending on the age of the kids, it may be useful to filter questions through the teacher, or another third party. We found it beneficial one year to set up a question box; another time it was much less formal. Now that my nephew is a middle schooler, he's pretty confident answering specific questions himself. The important thing is that the conversation should be open, and moderated by everyone in your child's school community.