“Mama why is that boy in that chair? What is that chair?” I immediately felt flustered and had no idea how to respond. My three year old was innocently asking about an older boy, about eight years old, and his wheelchair. Why did this make me so nervous? Why was I stuttering and unsure how to respond?
Teaching children to understand and appreciate special needs or differences can be tricky but is very important. Often parents, in an attempt to not offend anyone, avoid the questions all together, shushing their child and quickly distracting. But this can accidentally send the hurtful message to ignore special needs individuals.
So how can we respond and teach our children about special needs, disabilities or challenges to promote understanding and appreciation for everyone? We reached out to Laura Robertson, a local pediatric occupational therapist who had some great advice for parents and kids.
- You can’t always tell when someone has a disability. Respond with kindness, not judgment. There is a myth that some disorders such as ADHD or Autism, are just a fashionable excuse for “bad parenting” and “bad behavior.” When in fact these parents are worn out, exhausted, and may not have slept for days. Kids with ADHD and Autism also look just like any other child, so it is difficult for others to understand it is not just “bad behavior” when the child is having a public meltdown.
- If people seem to be struggling with their child, ask: “How can I help?” or “What do you need?”
- When your child blurts out a question about an individual with special needs, give him or her the best answer possible while focusing on the positives. “That is a wheelchair. We don’t know the exact reason why he needs it, but it helps him get from place to place. He has a nice smile and loves to play just like you, let’s go ask if he wants to join us.”
- Don’t make assumptions about a child’s potential based on a label. Children with diagnoses have a range of capabilities, strengths and weaknesses, just like anyone else. “Maybe you can help Susie practice tying her shoes and she can teach you how to cheer people up. She is always making people smile.”
- Remind your child to be sensitive to the child at the park playing alone. Don’t pull your child away afraid it is a disease they might catch. Encourage them to play with the child while you chat with the parent. A little bit of friendliness and help goes a long way.
- Saying “at least it’s not cancer” or comparing them to another child is not helpful.
- Children with craniofacial and physical abnormalities and their parents also realize people notice, but once you notice, smile. Don’t stare or gawk and never say negative things.
- If there is a child with a disability in your child’s class, playgroup or sports team, invite him/her over to a play date. Include him/her on a birthday party list. Too many parents of children with special needs say their kids miss out on peer-to-peer activities or are not invited to social events.
- And really one last time – don’t stare. Really. Just don’t.
If you are looking for some resources to help you and your child or further open up the discussion about special needs friends, consider the following:
- Don’t Call me Special by Pat Thomas
- Special People Special Ways by Arlene Maguire
- I See Things Differently: A First Look at Autism by Pat Thomas
- My Friend Isabelle by Eliza Woloson
- A Very Special Critter by Mercer Mayer
- Wonder by R. J. Palacio (Don’t forget to check out the move too!)
So how did I ultimately respond to my three year old’s (loud) question? I explained to my child what a wheelchair is and pointed out that the older boy had red shoes (my kiddo’s favorite color). My child immediately wanted to tell the boy he loved his shoes and decided he wanted a wheelchair of his own. He thought it was awesome. Young kids are curious but naturally accepting when guided that direction.
In the end, children with special needs and parents of children with special needs want kindness, friendship, acceptance and respect. They aren’t sideline participants in life. Their path may look a little different than yours, but, just like you, they are walking the hills and valleys and making the best of each day. Choose to walk alongside when you can and see how much brighter your world becomes.