You Be You and I’ll Be Me! Helping Children Understand Differences

No two individuals are the same. Some children use a wheelchair to get around. Others need a cane to help them navigate the world with their visual impairment. Yet, not all disabilities are as obvious — some children have learning disabilities and others are on the autism spectrum.

With the goal of creating a more inclusive and welcoming world, what can you do as a parent to help your youngster interact with and befriend a child with a disability?

“Parents can encourage their kids to play with children that are different, let kids figure things out and learn how to interact and play with each other,” said Dr. Matthew Love, a professor of Special Education at San Jose State University’s Lurie College of Education. “When talking to very young children about disabilities, it’s important to keep the explanations simple like, ‘She uses a cane because her eyes don’t work as well as they could or that little boy is uncomfortable with loud noises.’

“Children with disabilities are like all children — they want to have friends, be accepted for who they are, and be included in daily activities. They’re just living their lives,” said Love.

When fielding questions and encouraging your child to play with all children regardless of their abilities, here are some thoughts to share with your child:

· Everyone is unique. We all have our strengths and possess unique differences — some are just more noticeable than others.
· A disability is only one dimension of a person. Help your child to treat all kids as equals and not talk down to them. Don’t assume that someone with a physical disability also has cognitive issues.
· Explain that people can be born with a disability or can have a disability resulting from an accident or illness.
· Children with a disability can do many of the things “you” can do, but it may take them longer or they may need assistance or special equipment.
· Don’t be nervous or scared, just be you. People with disabilities are no different than “you, and mommy and daddy.”

If your child has a challenging or confusing interaction when playing with another child, reassure them that it’s not anything they did, and help them to stay calm and not get upset.

“This is an opportunity for parents to teach their children about the many differences we all possess and that every one of us has good days and bad days,” said Love. “Try to tie the interaction back to something that happened to your child so they can relate. For example, ‘The little boy is upset because he’s having trouble doing the activity. Remember when you got upset the other day because you couldn’t hit the ball?’ This helps create a co-equal relationship that helps your child better understand how the little boy might feel.

“When issues arise, though, it’s important for parents to help children not get discouraged or nervous to the point it prevents them from making friends with someone with a disability in the future,” added Love.

It’s possible that if you haven’t had a lot of exposure to someone with a disability, your child may be less intimidated than you. It’s helpful to remember these suggestions when engaging with other parents:

· Smile and say “hello” to the parents of a child with a disability. It can be isolating to have a child with special needs.
· If you have questions regarding a playdate or an upcoming party, call the other parent and ask what you can do to ensure everyone, including their child, can participate.
· Share any concerns you have with the parent. Most parents will be pleased that you reached out and will be happy to help you address any obstacles.
· Ask before helping out a person with a disability and remember abilities can vary from day-to-day.

“It’s critical to build larger systems of support in schools, communities, and advocacy networks that bring diverse parent-voices to the table to ensure all children can participate in daily life,” said Love.

“When we include families who may have additional considerations or needs, we can better serve all children. Getting society to recognize and redefine what it means to be human starts with our children.”

Afternoons for All Abilities is the second Tuesday of every month from 1–4 p.m. at Children’s Discovery Museum.

Play Your Way is offered several times throughout the year. The next evening event is April 27 at Children’s Discovery Museum.