Dear Therapist: My Granddaughter Has Autism and Her Cousins Exclude Her

I feel a need to help them understand she's wired differently. Should I intervene?

Granddaughter looking outside at kids playing
Bianca Bagnarelli
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Dear Therapist,

I have 10 grandchildren who live in the same city as me—all are under the age of 10, and they are together a lot. One of our granddaughters, a 7-year-old I’ll call Poppy, has a pretty high-functioning form of autism. She’s adorable and outgoing, with a quirky, affectionate, fun personality.

Everyone adores her, but some of the cousins around her age or a little older have started to seem uncomfortable around her. Poppy often likes engaging in imaginative play and sometimes talks in non sequiturs. For example, the other day she pulled three of her female cousins into another room because she needed to tell them something urgent. She went into a long story about unicorns and magical kingdoms that didn’t make a lot of sense, and within a couple minutes I could see some of them looking at each other, trying to figure out what she was saying and how to extricate themselves from the conversation. I’ve also noticed that they sometimes exclude her when they play in small groups, because she doesn’t like playing the way they do, and eventually wanders off on her own. She ends up looking at books happily by herself.

Poppy receives special-ed services at school and private therapy (where she’s working on social interaction), but I’d like advice on how best to navigate this issue when the grandchildren are together at my house. Her parents, while wonderful, are unlikely to see this as an issue that needs addressing.

I don’t want her cousins labeling her “weird” or avoiding her. I also don’t want Poppy to feel ostracized—family should be a safe space where we love people the way they are. Poppy is wired differently, but I’m not sure that is something little kids can grasp. How can I help the grandchildren develop some empathy without specifically labeling her? Any suggestions?

Birmingham, Ala.

Dear Anonymous,

How wonderful for you to have so many grandchildren close to you—and how wonderful for them, as cousins, to get to spend so much time together while growing up. In terms of what to do to make this time together more comfortable, I think there are two main issues here: how Poppy’s cousins feel about these interactions, and how Poppy feels about them. There’s also, of course, how you feel about them—and it’s good that you’ve noticed what’s going on, as a few conversations might help all your grandchildren, now and years into the future.

Let’s start with Poppy’s cousins. Understandably, they aren’t sure what to make of her behavior, and this is a great opportunity to talk to them about the ways in which people are different. We all think differently, feel differently, and respond differently to the world. Sometimes, you can tell them, people have annoying habits or passions we don’t share; sometimes they bore us. But we need to learn to be patient and respectful—we can gently redirect the conversation, or listen and ask a few questions and then go off and do something else. The point is that we all have quirks, and just as we want to be accepted for who we are, it’s important to accept others for who they are, too.

Poppy’s quirks, of course, are more noticeable than the average kid’s. Without any kind of explanation or context, neurotypical kids have no other way to make sense of how she behaves. It’s very confusing for children when the adults around them act as if everything’s normal when clearly it isn’t. Pretending that nothing unusual is happening makes kids feel unsafe.

You say that Poppy’s parents “don’t see this as an issue that needs addressing,” but if they object to your talking to the grandkids, you can explain to them that if it’s not addressed, it’s more likely that her cousins will label her as “weird” and avoid her. Young children can absolutely grasp the concept that Poppy’s brain is wired a bit differently, and this understanding won’t make them shun or label her—just the opposite. It will help them to see her in a more nuanced way and make them more compassionate toward their cousin. People label others as weird only when they themselves are uncomfortable with difference, and understanding what the difference is about decreases that discomfort.

This doesn’t mean that the cousins will naturally gravitate toward Poppy, or even that Poppy wants that. Which brings me to Poppy’s side of this: You’ll want to find out not only what makes the cousins comfortable, but also what makes Poppy comfortable. Does she want to be included in their play? If so, you can give her explicit instructions on how to get in there and how to deal with rules, turn-taking, and so on (this can also be reinforced in her therapy). Are there certain kinds of play she prefers and others during which she’d rather sit out and read a book or make up stories and do her own thing? (Remember, she may find her cousins and some of their play boring or uninteresting.) Judith Newman, who wrote about the experience of raising a son with autism in her book To Siri With Love, told me that her son likes saying hello to his neurotypical brother’s friends and sometimes wants interaction, but doesn’t want interaction forced on him.

I think that’s the key for all of the cousins—not forcing interactions, but fostering open-mindedness and flexibility. If you encourage inclusion and respect for differences, the cousins will appreciate Poppy’s many lovable qualities without feeling like they have to play with her every minute or pretend not to notice what’s plainly in front of them. Better for them to understand that it’s not that Poppy is self-absorbed when she’s obsessed with a topic, but that sometimes her mind gets stuck on it.

Meanwhile, let them know that it’s okay for them to have their feelings—frustration, impatience—and that there’s no particular way they have to feel about interacting with Poppy, as long as they’re kind. That means no teasing, no eye-rolling, no whispering. And just because sometimes they prefer to play without her—or she without them—doesn’t mean they care less about her or her about them. It means they’re respecting each other’s preferences and differences in temperament and wiring.

Poppy will still have her struggles, but being honest about what’s going on will make everyone more comfortable and bring the cousins closer together. By explaining all this now, you’ll lay the groundwork for them to understand her more fully as they get older, and empower them to become her fiercest protectors when others out in the world misunderstand her. And as grownups, they may well say that they’re more loving and compassionate people because Poppy was an integral part of their lives.

Dear Therapist is for informational purposes only, does not constitute medical advice, and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician, mental-health professional, or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. By submitting a letter, you are agreeing to let The Atlantic use it—in part or in full—and we may edit it for length and/or clarity.