It’s understandable for children to feel uncomfortable or even scared when they’re faced with someone who looks or acts different from what they’d expect. This can lead to some pretty embarrassing moments when your child points and asks too loudly, “What’s wrong with him, Mommy?” (If it helps, know that most parents of kids with special needs who I’ve known fully understand that young kids don’t mean harm when they do things like this.)
Continually teach your child that “different” doesn’t mean “bad.” One of the best things you can do is to convey how cool it is for people to overcome their challenges and obstacles. Try to avoid sending your child too many messages that you feel bad for people with special needs, or that they need sympathy. This encourages the mentality that they’re inferior because of their disabilities.
You can explain any clear issues you spot—“His legs don’t work like yours, so he uses that chair on wheels to get around instead of walking.” Or “She uses that stick because she can’t see . . . It helps her to feel what’s in front of her so she doesn’t bump into things.”
Intellectual and emotional disabilities are sometimes trickier to explain, but if you keep the concepts simple, you can be honest without being insulting. When describing someone with mental challenges, you can say, “He doesn’t learn as fast as you do. He has to work harder to learn things that are easy for you, like [fill in examples].” When describing someone with autism or similar disorders, you can say, “His brain works a little different from yours, so it’s harder for him to communicate with people like you do.”
Some important points to make when easing your child’s concerns are:
• You can’t catch it. It’s not contagious like a cold is.
• It isn’t anyone’s fault. He didn’t do something wrong.
• It’s something she was born with, and she’ll always have it.
• There’s a lot she can do anyway, and lots of things she can be good at.
A Positive Spin on Challenges
Kids with special needs can be an inspiration for kids without disabilities. “What a challenge that boy faces,” you might say. “And look at how well he’s doing. Why do you think he’s smiling? What’s he happy about? How do you think you would handle it if you had to wear leg braces and a helmet like that? What do you have to deal with that’s a real challenge for you?”
You might try brainstorming with your child about what the other person’s life is like. What things would be different, and what would be the same? The other person might need a lift to get up stairs, or might not be able to ride a bike or recite the ABCs. But maybe they like the same TV shows or music, and love pizza, and both have dog. If you can help your child see some potential common ground, it can be easier for him to have empathy.
A friend of mine has two sons, seven and ten, who are particularly wonderful to kids with disabilities. It seems that they manage to find and befriend every kid who has a physical or mental disability. They’ll go skate with a boy at the roller rink who’s slower than everyone else, or sit next
Backlash from Mainstreaming
Another recent problem is that not all parents are happy that kids with special needs are included in “regular” classes. There has been much evidence to show that kids with special needs learn more when they’re mainstreamed as much as possible, rather than segregated into special schools and separate classrooms all the time. However, this sometimes causes parents of nondisabled kids to complain that their kids are being “dragged behind” or are not getting enough attention because the kids with special needs are using up too much of the teachers’ attention.
This usually comes from parents who are ultracompetitive. Sometimes, those parents will even push for their own kids to be diagnosed with something so they can get the “competitive edge” of having an aide assigned to them, or extra time to take tests, or additional tutoring. In essence, they play the system, figuring they’ll take advantage of whatever they can for their kids to get the most attention.
It’s not a healthy mind-set, nor does it set a good example for the kids. It teaches kids that parents have no respect for kids with disabilities, so why should they? Those parents see these kids as a nuisance and dead weight, so why would their kids think any differently?
But diversity benefits everyone, and parents who spend their days looking for ways to exclude others, get special attention, and cheat the school system are hurting everyone in the class.
Special Instructions for Special Needs
If your child is being bullied at school because of a disability, in addition to the steps and suggestions I’ve outlined in the previous chapters (documenting all incidents, talking to teachers, and so on), ask for a meeting with the Individualized Education Program (IEP) team, or the Section 504 team (named after Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973), which are there to ensure that the school district is properly meeting the needs of students with disabilities.
They can be your advocates, and help to ensure that a plan is enacted to keep your child safe from bullies. They can also make sure the problem is have no respect for kids with disabilities, so why should they? Those parents see these kids as a nuisance and dead weight, so why would their kids think any differently? But diversity benefits everyone, and parents who spend their days looking for ways to exclude others, get special attention, and cheat the school system are hurting everyone in the class.