You may believe that someone you know - be it a partner, sibling, colleague, friend, relative or neighbour – is autistic, but undiagnosed. How do you broach the subject with them sensitively, and deal with the reaction? Or it might be a child that you believe is on the autism spectrum, and you are wondering whether and how to approach their parent about it.

Broaching the subject with an adolescent or adult

Who should broach the subject?

Decide if you are the most suitable person to raise the issue. A teenager may dismiss it as unwanted interference if you broach the subject with them as a parent, but they may be more likely to listen if it comes from a friend or sibling. Is there somebody else they will respond to better than you?

What is the best way to raise the subject?

Choose a time when you and the person are alone and both in a positive mood. People are more receptive to ideas if they are relaxed. It would be much harder to discuss during an argument, when other people are present, or when the person is feeling stressed or upset.

The best way to start your conversation may be to say something like: 'I read something in the paper/heard a radio programme about autism and some of the characteristics sounded familiar, so I looked for more information on The National Autistic Society website.

Autistic people can have difficulty processing information, so be careful not to bombard them with too many details at once. They may also find it hard to understand your intentions, read body language or facial expressions. This can cause frustration or anxiety and make it harder for the person to accept what you are saying.

Have some written information about autism or Asperger syndrome to hand. Reading through the written information together may make it easier for the person to process the information than a conversation on its own. They can also read it again in their own time.

Talking to the person is not the only way of broaching the subject. You could write them a letter or an email. This will give you time to plan exactly what you want to say and allow them more time and space to digest it.

How will the person react?

People who are told that they may be autistic could react in a number of ways, eg confusion, denial or relief.

The person may become confused because they have not heard of autism. They may go into denial and say they feel that their difficulties are due to other factors. Or they may experience a sense of relief because they have always known they were different and autism provides the explanation they never had.

In many cases, you will be able to guess the kind of reaction you will get. It is important not to dwell on negatives and give the person some positive information about autism.

Should they get a diagnosis?

If you feel it is the right time you may be able to talk about getting a diagnosis.

To get a better idea of whether or not they are autistic, the person could try taking the Autism-spectrum Quotient test. This won't give them a diagnosis but will help to measure their autism traits. They may be more accepting of the possibility when it is measured in this way than through the things that others notice about them.

Some autistic people feel that there is little point in seeking a diagnosis as it will not significantly change their life. The decision rests entirely with that person. However, there can be some advantages to getting a diagnosis.

Find out more about autism, diagnosis and adult life, or contact us for help and advice.

Broaching the subject with a parent

You may be the first person in the child’s life to notice they do not have a typical development pattern.

A child on the autism spectrum can have erratic development, being advanced in some areas but behind in others. For example, they may have delayed language development, yet have the fine motor skills expected of a child of their age, or advanced computer skills.

There are usually three main reactions you can expect when broaching the subject of autism: denial (their child does not have any problems), confusion (they have never heard of autism), relief (they have thought their child is different and that autism may be a possibility).

Have some information about autism that you can pass onto them which they can read in their own time. Our Autism Helpline can send you information relevant to your situation.

It may be that you are not the best person to broach the subject and it would be better coming from a different family member, friend or professional. 

After receiving the diagnosis we felt a bit better. It was a relief, because we could actually say he was autistic. It was a relief to actually be able to use the diagnosis. We'd known what was wrong before he was two, but it was a good three years before we got the diagnosis and could actually say it.

Mother of an autistic child

If you are the grandparent

If you are the child’s grandparent, knowing if, when and how to broach the subject with your own child can be tricky. It is important to come across as caring and supportive rather than as interfering and judgmental about their parenting skills. It may be that they are already worrying about their child's development but hoping that the problems will go away.

Manoj had a grandson, Nijan, who was four years old. Manoj had noticed that he did not say many words and often jumped up and down, flapping his hands when he was excited. He would not use the toilet and had a woollen Bob the Builder hat since he was two years old which he would not leave the house without wearing - no matter what the weather. Nijan was in the nursery class at the local primary school, due to be moving up to the reception class that coming September. Manoj was really worried about Nijan not being able to keep up with his new classmates and being left even further behind. He spoke to his son - Nijan's dad - about this, but he did not want to hear anything of it, insisting that Nijan was to go to the reception class and was fine. Six months into the reception class, Nijan's teacher spoke to his parents about the possibility of perhaps seeing a professional about autism. Nijan's dad then spoke to Manoj and explained that he needed to give Nijan the chance in a mainstream school. He had begun to think about the possibility of autism when he had been to the Christmas school play and seen the other children in Nijan's class. He had always known that Nijan was different but had not realised his true difficulties until he had spoken to the class teacher.

If you have tried to gently broach the subject with your son or daughter and they do not want to listen, it may be that you will just need to wait. Be supportive, but perhaps don't mention the subject again. When they do have to consider it in the future they will be able to turn to you for advice and support.

If your grandchild is young, you could mention a difference in speech development - rather than autism - as a way of broaching the subject.

You may find you need support yourself as a grandparent. Grandparents Plus supports grandparents who have lost contact with their grandchildren or have a caring role in their grandchild’s life.

My wife Gwyneth and I are proud grandparents of eight-year-old Charlie, who has Asperger syndrome. This wasn't evident at first. When he was born, he was like every other baby - the apple of everyone's eye, as he still is now. As he got a little older, we noticed little things that didn't quite fit into the usual pattern of children his age. The biggest cause of concern was the constant lack of eye contact; it was as though he were ignoring you when you spoke to him, which made him appear quite rude. Unfortunately, I'm not long on patience and this caused me to raise my voice somewhat in order to get his attention, something I regret in hindsight. Other little things occurred, like his compulsion to speak to complete strangers, anytime or anywhere. I remember taking him to the park and going for a walk around the lake. As we were about halfway around, we saw two men sat fishing next to a no fishing sign. 'Grandad,' he yelled loudly, 'Why are those men fishing, when it says no fishing?' Regrettably the ground didn't open up and swallow us as I'd wished! The embarrassment I felt then was to be repeated quite often. I'm sure many parents and grandparents have gone cold at times, while out with their Asperger child. Will they notice that a person is fat or has a big nose? Will they want to know why someone has only one leg? Yes, I am afraid they will and they won't hesitate to ask! When we did eventually realise he had Asperger syndrome, this embarrassment was replaced by an added sense of protection and understanding towards him.

Brian Webb, Granddad

Find out more about autism, diagnosis and family life, or contact us for help and advice.

Last reviewed 24 October 2016