Today a friend send me a message asking for my help. She asked the following question: “We’re at [a park] and a group of adults with special needs just arrived. What do I tell my three year old when he asks about them? Just wondering. I remember being scared when I was little and I screamed, ‘Mommy, a monster!’ I want to handle it well.”
First of all, thank you for asking. Thank you for wanting to have an answer rather than just settling for the easy way out by distracting your child if they start to stare or shushing them if they start to ask.
Second of all, thank you for making me think about how to answer that question. And I have been thinking. All day, I have been thinking.
For Children Old Enough to Understand a More Lengthy Explanation You Could Try Something Like This:
Everyone single person in this world is unique and different. There are no two people exactly the same. Some people are born with crazy curly hair, some people lose all their hair when they get older. There are people with red hair and black hair, people with brown skin and pink skin. There are people with freckles and people with birthmarks. There are people who are good at playing football and people who love to make beautiful paintings. Some people love to read and some people love to cook. We are all different and that’s what makes this world such a special place. Each one of us reflects part of who God is.
Just like we are all born with differences in the way we look and the way we act, some people are born for some very big differences in the way their body works or how their brain works. Sometimes people are born with things wrong with their body and they may have to be in a wheelchair because their legs don’t work, they may walk funny because their back is not straight, they may not be able to see, they may not be able to talk, and they may not be able to learn and do everything the way that you do.
Sometimes people are born really smart and may create great inventions, solve all kinds of problems, write really awesome stories, or dance really well; but sometimes when a child is born their brain is not as strong as a brain should be. Sometimes their brain doesn’t grow all the way and works like a little child’s brain even when they are grown up. Even though their brain is different, they are so special to God. Having a brain that works differently doesn’t stop them from having fun, loving their friends, going to the park, snuggling with their mommy, playing with their daddy, learning to cook, having fun at a party, and being everything God created them to be.
Sometimes a persons brain stops growing and they are never able to learn to talk the way you have learned to talk. Sometimes they make noises that are very different from the noises you make to express their feelings since their words don’t work. They might squeal when they are excited or moan when they are afraid. They may flap their arms to show that they are happy or duck their head into their chest to show that they are worried. They are just showing us what they are feeling and thinking by using sounds and movement.
There is no reason to be afraid when we see people who are different. God created them. God loves them. Just like He loves you. The very best thing you can do is smile and wave to let them know you think they are great just the way that that God made them.
I would even encourage you to show clips of movies that feature adults or children with special needs and then talk about it before you are in a situation in real life.
– Forest Gump
– The Boys Next Door
– I Am Sam
-Riding the Bus with My Sister
-Praying with Lior
(Disclaimer: I am not recommending these movies as family friendly or appropriate for your children to watch. I would encourage you to find a few appropriate scenes to watch with your children as points of discussion and for education about adults with special needs.)
In addition a quick Amazon search came up with dozens of books featuring children with special needs. Take a trip to the library and do some digging of your own.
For Very Young Children Who Cannot Understand the Above Explanation
Obviously keep it simple and let them know by your reaction that you are not afraid! In addition, if you want to develop a lifestyle as a family of appreciating and valuing children and adults with special needs, you need to be around them! Volunteer at a group home, a Down syndrome guild event, visit the special needs classroom at your public school, have a play date with a friend who has children with special needs. Get creative!
When you are in public and see a child or adult with some type of special needs, please don’t ignore them! Wave and say hello if it feels appropriate. But be intentional about talking about what you have seen with your child. For young children we all know that actual experience with the world around them is the best teacher.
Say things like this:
– Oh look at that man having fun at the park. I don’t think he can talk, but he sure is showing how excited he is by the noises he is making. I love how excited he is.
– Oh look at that little boy in the wheelchair. It looks like his legs don’t work the way that yours do, but he is sure having fun watching the seal at the zoo, isn’t he! I’m so glad his mommy was able to bring him to the zoo today.
– Oh look at those grown ups over there watching the horses, they look so excited to be here today. Look at how they are jumping and laughing. God made them in a very special way and even though they are big, they have hearts like little children. Some of them don’t know how to talk but they sure are telling us how happy they are aren’t they!
As your children grow and learn, continually use every opportunity you can to make them aware of the beauty and value of all of God’s children.
And as a mother with children who have special needs I can promise you that it would never offend me to have a parent and child approach me and ask me about my child. Do it in a tactiful way of course. Be appropriate. Don’t ask, “What’s wrong with your child?” or “What does your child have?”
Instead say something like, “Your daughter is so beautiful and looks so happy to be at the park today, would you mind if we said, ‘Hello’.”
Or even say, “It’s really important to me that my child learn to welcome children with special needs into their lives and we would love to play with you for a little while, if that’s ok.”
And honestly, if your child does something “childish,” and it is observed or heard by a parent of a child with special needs. Acknowledge that too. It’s so easy to say, “I’m so sorry. My child has never seen [a child in a wheelchair] or [a child with a breathing tube] would you mind if we introduced ourselves. Can you tell me about your child? He sure does have a beautiful smile?”
Half of the challenge is your own response as a parent. If you shield your child’s eyes or cover their mouth, you are reinforcing that what they are observing or hearing is somehow WRONG! If you embrace the moment and use it to teach your child, you will be giving your child an incredible gift.
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