When a child has a physical disability, it can be explained in a manner similar to an illness. When the problem is psychological, it's a little more difficult.
As a social skills teacher, I interviewed 12 high school students with autism. I asked them if they had ever heard the term "autism". Although these students were nearly of legal age, only two had heard the term. One asked for more information, and the other said it meant, "my brain doesn't work right".
I wondered how anyone could deal with a disability he or she didn't even know existed? Clearly children and teens need information to help them deal with their intellectual challenges. Generally they have already noticed how they are different from others, and have wondered why. Keeping information a secret does not make the disability go away or ease the pain of their problems.
How do you begin? Choose the right time. Have a discussion using appropriate wording. Give them information and hope. Then keep the lines of communication open as your child grows.
Timing is important. Youngsters may not understand a diagnosis or complicated terms, but can comprehend how their psychiatric challenges can affect their behavior. This talk can begin at four or five years of age. If your child is having problems with peers or controlling behavior, an explanation of his or her diagnosis can ease the pain. Eight years old is a good time to start if the difficulties mentioned above have not yet appeared.
Be very matter of fact during the discussion. Remain calm and positive. Explain it is not a punishment.
Use the disability to explain challenging behaviors, but reinforce that improvements can be made. Explain that everyone has something that is difficult for them, and give examples. Let them know that they are not alone in their challenges--others have similar problems and there are many people working to provide help.
Make sure your child knows that the services they are receiving are to help them. Talk about this topic every time challenges arise. Keep the dialog going and remind them that most conditions can improve over time.
Children can not only tell when they are different, but when their parents are concerned. Postponing the discussion will not save anyone in the family from worry. Consider how hurt your child may be if he or she learns about a disability by overhearing a conversation or by being told by someone outside the family.
It is important to remember not to permit your child to use the disability as an excuse. While the school may make accommodations and modifications based on a diagnosis, the world after high school generally will not. If a teen is pulled over for speeding, the officer will not let him go because he says, "I can't help it. I have ADHD and I'm impulsive". Teach your child that disabilities are not an excuse for poor behavior.