How to Help Your Child Relate to Kids With Special Needs

How do I help my kids act around kids with special needs?

When we see our kids gazing at someone that looks or act differently than us, we’re quick to say, “Don’t stare.”

It’s not polite.

To the child who seems unappreciative of their healthy mind and body we say, “So-and-so down the street will never be able to run and play like you. Be grateful. Run around. Read a book.”

Those messages mean well, but they create an environment of invisibility and pity for the child with special needs.

Our heart is in the right place.

When we tell our kids to ignore disabilities, we’re trying to teach our children to be kind. What we’re really teaching them is to separate.

Your child hears “don’t stare,” so they are taught to avert their eyes.

The disabled child becomes invisible.

You say, “be grateful you aren’t that way,” and they hear, “that person isn’t capable of what you are.”

The disabled child is no longer a peer.

Trying to spare the feelings of a child who is “different,” can backfire – feeling like you don’t belong is a lonely place to live.

Lonely can be the worst.

Inside that disabled, impaired, and unique child, is a person. A person who craves and deserves contact, love, understanding and relationships.

Your child is a critical part of their community. They have the chance to make a difference.

When we tell our kids to ignore disabilities, we’re trying to be kind. What we’re really teaching them is to separate. #specialneeds 

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Here are 8 ways that you can teach your child to relate to kids with special needs.

1. Say hi. Sounds simple right?

Then why isn’t it? Instead of telling your child not to stare, teach them to smile. To say hello. Encourage them to do so without expecting the same thing in return.

A lack of reciprocation doesn’t mean the act wasn’t noticed or appreciated, nor does it matter.

This tiny gesture that most of us don’t think twice means a great deal to a child that is often inadvertently ignored by the public in an effort to “be polite”.

2. Teach them that they have things in common.

Children with special needs exist under a huge umbrella of issues and diagnosis. They can have much more in common with their peers than meets the eye. Maybe the autistic boy in your son’s class loves Pokemon too. Or the girl with Down’s in your daughter’s home room loves Justin Bieber just as much as your daughter does.

Make an effort to pay attention and teach your kids about similarities where they don’t always expect to find them.

Relating to kids with special needs

3. Educate everyone.

Teach your child about the reality of a few different disabilities so that they may begin to “get it.” Start with Down’s Syndrome and Autism since they will likely be exposed to peers with these disabilities most often.

Direct the conversation so that you spend your time discussing all of the things these children can do since so often the focus seems to be on what they cannot.

4. Emphasize respect.

As is the case with all people, children with disabilities need to be physically, emotionally and socially respected by their peers. The last thing any of us wants is for our child to be involved in teasing or disrespecting another person.

Communication and instilling the importance of humanity and compassion is critical to ensure that this doesn’t happen.

5. Do something together that inspires conversation and awareness.

When my kids were sorting old toys in the basement one day last year, we starting packing up wooden puzzles that we weren’t using anymore. I suggested we take them to the special education classrooms at my son’s elementary school since I knew that they were used with cognitively impaired students.

My son had a lot of questions about why the kids still used “easy” puzzles. His honest questioning led to a great conversation, and to his first act of kindness toward his peers with disabilities. Small gestures can lead to great leaps in understanding.

6. Discuss communication.

As in, point out that there are many ways kids can communicate. Not just with words. They should know that although some of their disabled peers may be non-verbal, it doesn’t mean that aren’t communicating. This can help your child understand that some of the unfamiliar movements and sounds they see from a special needs child are really acts of communication. Being non-verbal doesn’t mean that your child can’t use other methods of communicating to connect with them.

7. Surprise them.

Your child may not know that disabled people have the ability to accomplish amazing things. They may see surface limitation instead of extraordinary possibility. Show them that the world is full of spectacular minds and incredible athletes who live with disabilities. It may cause them to see their peers with special needs in a whole new light.

8. Be the example.

Smile and talk freely with the disabled man who is bagging your groceries in the check-out line. Be open, friendly and communicative to show your child how important it is. Say hello to the student you pass in the hallway with Down’s and hold the door for the mother whose son is in a wheelchair. Your child is always watching and learning. Be the example.

Foot in mouth, anyone? 

Last year, I taught art and media to three groups of cognitively impaired students. I was intimidated at first because I didn’t want to do or say the wrong thing.

I didn’t want to mess up.

In the end they taught me far more than I taught them. They taught me to relax. They taught me that even if I mess up, they’ll forgive me. They might not be just like everyone else is some ways, but in a lot of ways they were.

In all of the important ways.

Full of personality, kindness, interest and abilities, these kids became one of the very best parts of my day. They made me laugh and made me happy.

Help your child to learn this lesson. Help them to see every kid. They will learn much more than you realize.

It’s worth it.

Help your kids to see every child. No one is invisible. - Blair,

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Associate Editor of Lies About Parenting, Blair finds stories in her everyday, ordinary life and likes to over think them to death so that they no longer seem everyday and ordinary. She shares it all because she thinks it’s good to be imperfect. It’s human. By sharing the missteps, the screw-ups, and the eventual insights, she thinks she can make another imperfect somebody out there appreciate their own story a little more. You can find her at

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