Have you ever encountered this question from your children when out in public and they see a child with apparent special needs? How do you respond appropriately? What is the best way to teach your child that there are differences among all of us? How can you encourage your child to include and befriend other children who are different?
My two daughters and my son have had a rare advantage in having opportunities to interact with children who have a variety of diagnoses. As a pediatric therapist and owner of a pediatric therapy clinic, my kids have grown up spending time in my office and meeting a lot of different children. I have gained knowledge about helping children appreciate and embrace other children with differences based on these experiences. Here are some points to help you encourage your children and seek opportunities for them to grow:
Know the right thing to say.
Although it’s well intended, saying “that child has special needs” is not necessarily accurate. I learned from a wise person many years ago that all children have the same needs: to be loved and to feel safe and secure.
The term “special needs” is widely used across fields of diagnoses to refer generally to a child who is disabled or has a medical diagnosis, but children don’t need us to emphasize what’s different, but how they are the same – how they can be friends. Call each child by name and speak about them like you would any other friend of your child’s.
Make new friends.
Just because a child has cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, autism, apraxia, mitochondrial disorder, or a host of other diagnoses, does not mean they are incapable of having or being a friend. Teaching our children to ask these friends along for birthday parties or a summer outing not only makes another child feel a part and liked, I guarantee you it makes a mother happy in her heart, too. Encouraging children to have friends who may need a little extra help is good for the typical child, as well, because it helps build a sense of empathy, and often they’ll be excited about the opportunity to be a peer helper.
Teach about differences…the healthy way.
How do you answer the question, “Mommy, what’s wrong with that kid?”? Teaching about differences can involve pointing out to your child a way that they are also different from others so that they understand that being different isn’t a negative thing. Some possibilities, depending on the situation, include: there are some children who need extra help; whose brains think about things differently than yours does; need help moving their muscles to walk; etc…”
Many organizations, including Kid’s Creek Therapy, periodically provide respite opportunities for caregivers of children with medical or developmental challenges. Becoming involved with these efforts is an excellent opportunity for your child to meet and hang out with new friends who may be different. Our clinic also provides year-round volunteer and internship programs for teenagers to interact with both children and therapists (both for high school credit through gifted programs, volunteer hours, or just to be here and learn). Be a “buddy” at your church or school. Many elementary schools offer buddy programs to encourage inclusion of all children – make the children’s ministry staff at your church aware that your child would be interested in being a “buddy” to another child during a particular time or program.
Let’s do our part to raise up children who include and accept children of all functioning levels. After all…we are all different in our own way.
Melanie McGriff, M.Ed., clinic owner and speech therapist