What’s the best way to respond when kids ask about children with special needs?
Integrated International School’s Founding Principal and Clinical Psychologist DR VANESSA VON AUER shares six tips on how parents can best address children’s natural curiosity about people’s differences or disabilities.
#1 Act normally
It’s a normal part of our human experience to interact with people who are different from us. If your child asks you about a physically challenged person in a wheelchair, take a casual and explanatory tone by saying, “Some people use their legs to walk, and some use a wheelchair to get around.” If a child asks about another child’s self-stimulatory behaviours, such as hand-flapping, parroting sentences or spinning exhibited by some children on the Autism Spectrum, take the same approach and say, “Some children show their excitement by flapping their hands.” Keep the information simple at first, so your child can process the discussion and follow up with questions later.
#2 Read together
Educate your child and show them that every person is unique in their own way. Books are a helpful and useful tool because they naturally incite curiosity and conversation. There are plenty of informative and friendly picture books that discuss special needs and differences. Talk with your child about labels such as Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), ADHD, sensory processing disorder and hearing impairment. Spend time together and discuss people’s differences and the effects that they can have.
#3 Emphasise similarities
Explain the commonalities your child likely has with special needs children. They have the same feelings, like to have fun, love their families and probably share a favourite Disney movie. Discussing similarities will show your child that being different does not define a person, much like your children’s physical characteristics don’t define them. Emphasising similarities also helps children acknowledge that being different is nothing to be ashamed of. It just makes our friends and our lives more colourful.
#4 Answer questions with honesty
Children are naturally curious and ask a lot of questions. Being honest is better than avoiding the situation or feeling embarrassed. If your child is staring at a person who may appear different, open the conversation with a short and matter-of-fact description that will answer your child’s questions while showing them that the person has nothing to be ashamed of.
#5 Lead by example
Instilling values, such as community and inclusion, teaches children to embrace differences and makes everyone feel included. If you see a child with special needs, smile, say “Hello” and talk to the parents. If you approach the parents in a comfortable and friendly way, it’s much easier for your child to do the same.
#6 Encourage kindness and understanding
Children copy their parents in almost everything they do, and absorb everything they hear. When talking about someone with special needs, it’s important not to use terminology that would make someone feel left out or imply that they are “less than”. Your children can often sense whatever mum or dad is feeling. Feeling nervous, awkward or afraid around people with differences will only be passed down to your mini-me. Even if you are nervous, put those feelings aside and respond positively and calmly when encountering people with differences or disabilities. Your kiddos will follow your actions.
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