The world is full of all kinds of people and everyone has something to contribute. Children are constantly observing and absorbing information from the world around them. It is inevitable that one day – and perhaps everyday – they will see someone who is different than they are. Some parents are embarrassed about talking to their children about others with disabilities because they aren’t sure what to say. They may not have all of the answers or know how to respond. That’s okay. You can still model respectful behavior and teach your children about accepting others’ differences.
If your child sees someone using a wheelchair, crutches, or braces, don’t make them think they need to feel bad for that person. There isn’t anything “wrong” with them. You may want to explain that they are unable to walk, or have trouble with their legs. Braces may help them to move more easily or have better control. They are still able to get around, just in a different way. They’re at the store, or the library, or the zoo, the same as your child is.
Find ways to explain their differences in words your child can understand and that aren’t degrading. Other children may have trouble speaking, but they can communicate using a computer or other assistive device to express their thoughts and needs. Someone may be having a meltdown because they have trouble dealing with all of the sounds or activity going on around them – your child may be able to relate if they don’t like crowds or a lot of noise. Let them know that just because someone talks, acts, or moves differently than they do, does not mean it’s wrong.
Children with disabilities may look different or act differently, but they also have a lot of similarities with typical children. Your child may notice what isn’t the same between them and another child, but draw their attention to what is the same. They may be looking at similar books or listening to the same song or laughing at the same sight. They both go to school and like to play with friends. Maybe they have a pet too or a favorite stuffed animal. Ask them what other similarities they think there might be.
There are a lot of disabilities that exist, so it’s okay if you don’t know about every single one of them. Instead of staring or trying to hush your child when they have a question, be open about your curiosity. Most parents of children with disabilities would rather you talk to them than try to avoid the situation or make up an answer. Politely ask if it is okay if you ask about their child, or encourage your child to speak up and ask a question. Children are still learning, so it’s okay if they don’t have all the right words. As a parent, teach them how to be polite and respectful and model this behavior yourself.
If you know the name of the condition, look it up together when you get home. That way you can both learn more and be more understanding when interacting with children and adults with the condition. You can talk about ways that you can be helpful and support them.
Let your child interact with all kinds of other children. If there is a child in their class who has disabilities, let them have a playdate or invite the child to their birthday party. Children with disabilities want to be treated like any other child and have the same opportunities and experiences. Talk to the child’s parent to see how you can make things work. What would help their child to feel more included and be able to participate?
Encourage your child to get to know them and find out what similarities they share. Maybe they both like the same television show or game. Perhaps they share a favorite book or character. Soon your child will realize that their differences don’t have to keep them apart. Your child can be a buddy to them in school and help out as needed, whether they’re in class, at specials, or on the playground. In return, your child will probably learn a lot from the child with disabilities as well.
Remember that your children are paying attention to and learning from your reactions as well. If you see someone with a disability, smile and say hello. Don’t be scared of them or treat them differently. Teach your children that bullying and name calling are not acceptable or tolerated. They wouldn’t want someone doing it to them, and they shouldn’t do it to anyone else. Remove the word “retarded” from your vocabulary as it has negative connotations no matter how it is used.
Teach your child to be aware of their surroundings and sensitive to the needs of others. If you see someone struggling, offer to help them. Just because someone has a physical disability doesn’t mean that they have a mental disability. And just because someone learns differently or communicates differently, doesn’t mean they are not as intelligent or don’t have the same feelings.
Compassion and understanding can go a long way. You never know when a life-long friendship will emerge. Teaching your child to respect others’ differences and not be scared of them or look down upon them can benefit them for the rest of their life. Even typical children don’t necessarily do things the same way as other typical children. Everyone is different and everyone is special in their own way.
Getting your child with a disability the services, therapy, and support they need can help them to manage or overcome their differences. They can learn how to communicate and function more effectively and independently. PediaPlex is an all-inclusive diagnostic and therapeutic clinic that offers ABA therapy, occupational therapy, speech therapy, play therapy, counseling services, and more. You child can receive the therapies they need all in one location, and you can work with therapists and other staff to create a plan to help your child be more successful.
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