Monday, November 24, 2014

How parents can talk to kids about ones with special needs

First: two stories

One story, I read about on Facebook. It was posted by a mom of a child with cerebral palsy.

So I'm having a sad moment. Daniel and I were at Target walking around. Daniel spies a little girl and smiles at her. The girl looks Daniel up and down with a look of disgust and says loudly 'Ew, gross' and walks away, but continues to look around the displays at him. He looked so sad. I pushed him away and said some people are just mean inside and out Daniel and you can't let it bother you. All said thru tears running down my cheeks....  That was the first time I've ever experienced something like that and it was crushing for me I can't imagine how he felt.

The other story is mine. Recently, my son came to a Girl Scouts meeting with me and my daughter one evening because our sitter couldn't stay late to watch him. A couple of girls kept staring. "Is he speaking gibberish?" I overheard one say. "He talks like Max, and he's learning," his sister said. I was proud of Sabrina. But I could not thinking about the way the girls had looked at him.

What I'm about to say

I am not here to preach. I am here to plea.

Why I'm saying it

As the parent of a child with a disability, I know that children often stare or gape at kids who have special needs. Sometimes, they make comments. They are kids: They're curious. They often don't know any better. It's possible they have never met a child with special needs. Or their parents have never spoken with them about kids with special needs.

If I'd never had a kid with special needs, I probably wouldn't have thought to talk to mine about kids with disabilities. But I did have a child with special needs. And like many parents of kids with disabilities, I am painfully aware of the fact that other kids are sometimes wary of my child, sometimes afraid of him and sometimes disgusted by him. I am glad to help explain my child and encourage connections, but it would be great if it came from you. It's not that hard.

It's ideal when conversations like this can happen organically—say, because your child has met a kid with special needs or seen one at the park or somewhere else. Otherwise, you can bring it up on your own.

Talk to your kids about ones with special needs

Tell them that there are lots of types of people in this world. Everyone is unique. Some kids have differences that are more obvious.

Some kids have trouble with hearing or cannot hear.

Some kids have trouble with seeing, or cannot see. 

Some kids talk in their own special way. Some kids cannot speak words, but they have other ways of communicating; they may use their hands or their eyes. Or they have an iPad or machine that speaks words for them.

Some kids walk in their own unique way. Some kids need braces on their feet to help them get around. Some kids use wheelchairs or walkers.

Some kids act certain ways because it makes them feel comfortable, like they like to repeat words, flap their arms or bang their knees against a table.

Explain different kinds of special needs

Obviously, there's much to be said here, but these are starting points. It's good to note that there are different kinds of cerebral palsy, Down syndrome and autism. 

Cerebral palsy happens when a child's brain gets hurt when he is born. Because the brain sends signals to muscles, he may have trouble with movements like walking, using his hands and feet and talking (fun fact: the tongue alone has eight muscles). You could ask your child to pick up something with his non-dominant hand to show how kids with CP may have challenges using muscles.

Kids with Down syndrome were born with it—they got a little extra information in their blood that can change some things, including how their eyes look. Sometimes it takes them longer to do stuff, including walking, talking and taking care of themselves. You could ask a child to talk with her mouth full of food to understand how talking with special needs can be a challenge.

Autism is a brain difference that makes it hard for kids to handle the world around them. They may be scared of loud noises or dark places. They may have trouble adjusting to changes, like trying new foods or having stuff in their room moved around. They may flap their arms up and down when they are excited or nervous. They are sometimes not sure what emotions look like—they may not be able to tell someone is happy or sad. And they may be sensitive to how things feel. You can ask your child if a shirt tag has ever felt scratchy, then note that kids with autism may find tags super-scratchy and uncomfortable.

Talk about what's more alike than different

A child with special needs is still a child. Just like any kid, they can enjoy playing with toys, coloring pictures, watching videos, going to the park and having birthday parties. They have favorite colors, TV shows and songs. They go to school and learn. They have unique talents and gifts, even if a child does not talk like they do or move like they do. They can laugh and get upset and get mad.

They love their moms and dads, like any kid.

Their parents love them, like any kid.

There is no reason to feel sad for them.

Ask your child to treat a child with special needs just like he'd want to be treated.

If they ask how to talk to a kid with special needs, tell them this: "Start with saying 'Hi.'"

You could always use a book or two to kick off a discussion about kids with special needs. A few good ones: It's OK To Be Different by Todd Parr (for toddlers); Don't Call Me Special (about physical disabilities, for kids ages 4 and up); My Friend Isabelle (about a girl with Down syndrome, for kids ages 4 and up); Susan Laughs (which shows how kids in wheelchairs are like any other kid, for kids ages 4 to 7); Let's Hear It For Amigal (about a girl who gets cochlear implants, for kids ages 5 to 7); See The Ocean (about a girl who is blind and sees beauty with her mind and heart, ages 5 to 7); My Brother Charlie (a book that explains autism by actress Holly Robinson Peete, based on her son with autism; for kids ages 7 to 10).

Here. I Put Together These Slideshows.

I collected photos from parents of kids with special needs. Parents can use these slideshows as talking points.

Kids With Cerebral Palsy Are Kids, Too

Kids With Down Syndrome Are Kids, Too


Kids With Autism Are Kids, Too


Please, speak with your children

If you don't have a kid with special needs, you might think that my greatest challenge is handling my son's disability. Yes, he needs extra attention and care. But actually, one of my biggest challenges in life is getting other kids to interact with Max, and see him for who he is: a kid.

Parents have all sorts of discussions with kids about diversity: They talk about different races, different cultures, different lifestyles and different body types. I hope you'll also have discussions about kids with different needs, and encourage your kids to ask questions.

You'll teach your kids to be more open-minded and accepting. They'll learn to appreciate differences, rather than fear them. You'll be instilling understanding and kindness in them, always a good thing.

And you'll be doing kids like mine a whole lot of good.

Photos of children with Down syndrome from project with Noah's Dad


  1. Good Job! And I as always say, I'll rather be asked questions than be stared at. I just wish more parents did what you describe. For many it's just not on their radar.

  2. wonderful post...This post is definitely so helpful..

  3. I don't get stared at for being autistic, but rather for my attention-grabbing wardrobe choices. On some days, I look like a walking glow stick and it doesn't concern me. If someone stares curiously or out of genuine interest, it means they care enough to notice, but are too shy to comment. If it is a dirty look, it means they are 1) jealous because they cannot pull off this style, 2) lacking in respect of alternative styles and other differences, 3) or just don't know how to react to something that doesn't fit the standard of normal. These people are not worth my time and energy. I'll let them deal with each other.

    1. FlutistPride....
      "I don't get stared at for being autistic, but rather for my attention-grabbing wardrobe choices. On some days, I look like a walking glow stick and it doesn't concern me. " I love you!! That is all I have to write, Friend!! Just keep being Beautifully Unique YOU!! You're awesome!! ;-D
      Love you later, Raelyn

  4. We are quite deliberate in talking to our children about these issues, but one of things I've found is that none of these discussions are meaningful without people to attach them too. I can talk about Downs Syndrome 'til I'm blue in the face, but the kids don't understand it (and, even, take my words and mis-interpret them into a skewed model, like, for example, thinking that a child with Downs might have an extra body part, instead of an extra chromosome). They do understand, though, when I talk about M, and why she might seem different from the other kids (and, they can also see a lot of the ways in which she is the same). I don't think its possible to teach kids about people with disabilities without the people being part of their lives (the same, is true, about race and culture). That's why diversity in environment matters so much to us.

    We do not always have all forms of diversity in our personal environment, though, and that's one of the reasons I do appreciate these blogs so much. Max seems very real to me, though I only know him on the internet. That makes it possible for my kids to know him, a little bit, too.

    (PS: I do think the question about gibberish might be a bit different then it was at first glance -- the kids actually do speak something they call "Gibberish" for fun -- that is, trying to speak without a recognizable words, so, one interpretation of the girls' question is whether M was speaking "Gibberish", rather than a comment on the quality of his speaking).


  5. So proud of Sabrina. Great advice Ellen

  6. I work with a group of kids (1st graders) who have never been around children with special needs. This became painfully obvious to me in the first few weeks of school when they would laugh at a child in our class whenever he talked and when they stared at one of our middle schoolers who uses a walker to navigate the hallway. I don't understand many things in my student's culture (I am very much an outsider!), but this was one that hit me hard. I grew so frustrated with the class as a whole, specifically about the laughing at their classmate part, and in my frustration, shared a story about 2 little boys that I used to work with: 1 with CP and another "typical." The one boys only concerns about his 5th birthday party centered around making sure his friend with CP could participate; he made his mom call the bowling alley to make sure they'd have a ball ramp available and then had her call his friend's mom to make sure she would bring his kid walk home from school that weekend. I told them that I wanted them to be that type of kid.

    They didn't know that I was talking about real children until later that afternoon, when I put up a picture of the little boys on the projector. Then they were full of questions, some of them really insightful. I've noticed little changes since then, especially with my higher level students: more patience on the staircase when walking behind a student with motor issues, giving a shout out to a child with oral sensory seeking for being "so brave" when he got something stuck in his teeth (yes, it's a safety issue; yes, we have a better system in place now). I will continue to work to expose my kids to children with different needs and abilities, because I'm not entirely sure anyone else in their lives will ever do so...

    In case anyone is wondering, here is how I explained CP to my first graders (we were working on a unit about the human body at the time, which was very handy!!!): The brain doesn't send the right signals to the muscles. A person may be able to think about what they want to do, but the wrong messages go to the nerves and so the muscular system doesn't work like it's supposed to.

  7. I hear you, however, my sense is that if a parent is ready to do what you suggest, his/her children are not the ones who need to be taught about disability. It never occurred to my husband or myself to specifically address the issue of disability, but our kids have been exposed to much diversity and have obviously felt that we were appreciative of differences and not judgmental abut people’s choices. A few months ago, my son’s teacher told me that he was by far the sweetest kid in his class in the way he dealt with a girl with CP. I didn’t even know there was a girl with CP in his class, so I asked him why he did not tell him about her. His answer was: I did tell you about her, her name is Lisa and she really enjoys my jokes.

  8. Great idea. I will start immediately.

  9. I do have to say before my daughter Kelsey was diagnosed with autism at 3, I really didn't address disability with my older boys who were 5 and 7 at the time. I vividly remember telling my son not to stare at a man in a wheelchair. I regret not using that moment as a teachable one, but I didn't know how to. 3 years later I do. And we love My Brother Charlie.

  10. One thing I love about my son's school is the way disabilities are normalized. Children are mainstreamed as much as possible, and "normal" kids will be paired up with kids that need help (think pushing a wheelchair, carrying books for a child in a walker, or being a playmate at lunchtime). I don't remember ever seeing a child in a wheelchair growing up. There are dozens at my son's school. Are some kids still mean? Yes, but it's not the norm and is dealt with promptly. All the kids benefit from exposure to children that are not just like they are.

  11. My kids are familiar with several disabilities - my dad/their grandpa's blind, cousin on the spectrum, daughter's BFF has one hand - and, when they encounter a someone with a disability they aren't familiar with, making an observational comment, eg "your wheelchair is fast/ sparkly", "your service animal is fluffy", etc.

    My girlies are 5 and 7, so I'm walking a fine line between not wanting them to pretend folks with special don't exist (which is, I think, what happens when kids get "shushed") and not teaching them to ask too-personal questions of total strangers (the checkout lady at the supermarket, substitute teacher, etc).

    The flipside of the too-personal-questions issue is that folks tend to assume they're adopted don't believe them when they say they aren't. Teaching them to (politely) shut down strangers is an ongoing process. (Girlies look exactly like their Chinese daddy and nothing at all like pale, redheaded, freckly me).

  12. This is a great idea. Any parent can talk to their child over and over again and they still may say "ew". Children are just children, don't let it get to you. I always like to surprise kids, even after they've said something not so nice about my client. I would've answered that little girl and said "ew, what? This is my son, he was trying to say hi" and showered her with kindness. Kids are not innately mean, they need us to.understand just as much!

  13. Some adults need to read this to improve their OWN behavior.

  14. Awesome article!! I am a parent of 2 children with special needs and I am also a special needs photographer. Thanks for featuring my image above!! Special needs kids are kids too. "Typical" kids just need things explained to them; we teach our kids about everything else, we need to TEACH them how to ask questions and accept people for who God made them.

  15. I'm sorry but little children are NOT the ones who "don't know how to talk to disabled people". No, we do. I'm not sure why you waste your precious time writing stupid articles about "the best" way to talk to wheechair users and so on. It makes us really embarrassing and weird. You know diddly squat about typical children
    I'm cringing so much as I read this post. There is a great post on this topic which all of you should read.


Thanks for sharing!

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...