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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, LiesAboutParenting.com

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  • I hope we reach a point where, in discussing differences of the physical, emotional, cognitive or developmental variety the word disabled isn’t used as often in the context. I had a gut reaction going from top to bottom with the article because I felt it began with a tone of, “it’s ok honey, they won’t hurt you.” To a tone of “all the little children of the world.” Trying to teach your children not to be afraid of differences is beautiful and I think crucial for genuine character. However, I feel explaining how we are not to separate, discriminate, etc based on differences that are detected physically or through social interaction loses some of its value and credibility when “disabled” is in nearly every paragraph as an adjective. My oldest child is Autistic and I would never think to say his is disabled. Understand, I am not a political correctness fanatic on any level. I am also not blind to or in denial of his diagnosis. However, there is nothing disabled about my child. Did he have a speech delay and still require speech therapy? Yep. Do I suck at geography? You bet! Does my kid sometimes roar and act like a dinosaur out of nowhere (seemingly)? Uh huh. Do I talk to myself in public when I quickly realize that I just spotted the hard to find item on my grocery list? Most definitely. I guess with all of my blathering on, the point I’m trying to make is that teaching kids about differences is great, but it should apply to all of us out here in this crazy world! I don’t think my child needs to come up and be friendly or talk to someone just because they look different. To me, that’s as confusing as the avoiding eye contact with the same person for the same reason. I agree that we should encourage kids to ask questions. I agree that educating our kids (and grown ups too) in order to aid in understanding, personal development and perspective is crucial! I’ll continue to encourage my kiddo to do his thing and be himself and if your kiddo wants to come play, ask him questions, or they share interests; cool! Understand though, my kiddo may not want to play the games, act, or talk like “non disabled” kids because maybe they just don’t want to. Not because of a “disability,” but a preference.

  • How did this one get by me?! What a great article Blair!! I had one of these moments while reading, where your gutt goes, “Yeah, see? I knew she was ‘good people’! She ‘gets it’!” And that you do. On many levels, thanks for espousing these ideas, teaching them to your dear children, writing about it, and especially sharing it with the world. It means a lot!

  • I love this article! As the mother of three boys with autism, I can tell you that it’s so important to spread awareness. Kids might ask what seems like inappropriate questions but remember…they are kids. They are brand new humans who don’t know things. It’s our job as parents to teach them. I’ve taught my children to embrace their autism, rather than hide from it. I don’t want them to feel like there is something “wrong” with them. Because there isn’t. They are just wired a little different. Great post! I hope many parents follow your example ?

  • I’m glad to know that people are sharing the protocol for how to address differences. My sister-in-law has cerebral palsy and wears a brace on her leg. When kids ask their parents what’s going on, why she’s different, parents are MORTIFIED. It’s like they are actually surprised that their kid asked a question about something that is different than what they are used to seeing.

    I want every parent to know that if their kid asks about my sister-in-law’s brace in public, our whole family is fine with it if you explain why (and if you don’t, I will because I’m a therapist and I’m fine with talking with random children in public if I think there’s a lesson to be learned!). But our whole family will be disappointed if you scold your child, and my sister-in-law will feel like an alien.

    Thanks for the post!

  • Hey Blair, what a fantastic article! Thank you so much….from the whole of the humanity! 🙂

    Children with disabilities are a real blessing to us in so many ways. They can teach us so much….to live in the present moment, to appreciate health, to focus on ability rather than disability, to develop compassion, to celebrate the richness of life in all its diversity.

    Well-done! A super important topic, and beautifully delivered.


    • Elena, thank you so much! What a kind comment. I couldn’t agree more- focusing on ability rather than disability is how disabled children strive to live every day, and what an inspiration to us all! I’m so glad to hear you feel I did the topic justice- it’s one that’s very important to me!

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