Some Needs Are Special: Educating and Socializing your Child to Other Special Needs Children

Physical or behavioral conditions are a social challenge for the children who have them – and sometimes, for the children who do not.

One day on their way to preschool on the city college campus, Vera’s four year old son Ben pointed at a young woman across the quad who was using crutches, and he said, “Mommy, that girl looks like a dinosaur from that movie!” Thankfully, they were out of earshot but it suddenly occurred to Vera that Ben had never seen a disabled person before. Vera felt a sharp pang of embarrassment that her son could easily humiliate someone with a condition, someone who already has it hard enough.

Ben wasn’t trying to be mean; he just had no exposure at his age. The problem is if we don’t sensitize our kids to others’ differences, they can turn into tormentors without our even knowing it. One of the reasons kids do this is that seeing obvious physical disabilities where the body parts don’t operate like they should, makes them uncomfortable. Teasing is a way of distancing themselves from that discomfort.

Child development specialists, psychologists, and teachers, as well as parents, talk about the things we can do to create tolerance and understanding around special needs. Implementing some of this vocabulary early helps our own kids develop empathy, and humanizes kids who are different.  

“We don’t talk about other people’s bodies.” This goes for overweight people, old people, people who look different than us. It’s a basic one that goes along with “don’t point.” It’s not that we want to shut down communication; we want to illustrate that it can cause hurt feelings to talk about other people in this way.

“Everyone’s body is a little different.” We can say to our kids that some of these differences are more noticeable with some people, and it’s one part, or facet, of that person. They still have feelings, strengths, and preferences, and it’s not their fault that they are different.

“Some disabilities are born, and some come from illness.” Explain why it happens and how it can make doing basic things very hard for someone with that disability. This is a good opportunity to flex empathy: “What if you had to climb stairs and your legs didn’t work?” Invite them to step inside that experience a little and see the enormous pressures and obstacles that face those with disabilities.

“Make friends.” Sometimes we as adults don’t know how to behave, and avoid direct contact with a disabled person and their caregivers. It’s the opposite of what we should do which is be direct, say hi, and have a conversation. Even if, for example, a child in your kid’s class has speech issues, he or she can still make art and play with toys together. More exposure truly equals less awkwardness.

Empathy vs. Sympathy. Pity is a natural social response, but it’s ultimately really useless for everyone involved. No one likes that feeling. People with disabilities don’t have time or room for self-pity; they spend their energy conquering things that are totally effortless and automatic for the rest of us. Empathy is different. What we need to understand, especially with regard to developmental issues like Autism Spectrum Disorder, is that by virtue of caring and interacting, we can actually help a child progress. Studies have illustrated that developmentally disadvantaged brains can rewire with interaction. If we really want to support families going through the often painful and misunderstood experience of navigating the world through special needs, we need to connect. It’s not only a key piece of progressing toward self-sufficiency for these kids, it’s also beneficial for everyone.

Demonstrating inclusion, helping, and a compassionate curiosity about people’s differences is the most logical and growth-oriented place to start from with our kids, and while we may not get it right all the time, we should examine our fear of embarrassment and see that it’s part of the learning process. Social fear is the big enemy for people with disabilities, and celebrating their progress and accomplishments is the remedy.

About Susie Almaneih

Susie Almaneih spent several years during her young adulthood teaching children dance at her church group, as well as other cultural-based activities. Susie now spends as much time as she can giving back to the families in her community. Over the years, this love for community has evolved into a deeper love for delivering positive and creative content and awareness to families of all ages.

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