Teaching Children about Special Needs and Disabilities

Disabilities and special needs cover a wide range and could be anything from a speech delay to a significant medical diagnosis. Some disabilities are obvious, such as a child with a physical disability who uses a wheelchair. Some disabilities, such as speech delays, sensory integration problems, learning disabilities or autism spectrum disorder may not be as obvious.

It is safe to assume that at some point your child will have a classmate, neighbor or relative with a disability. As a parent, you can help your child learn about disabilities and encourage him or her to be a friend and advocate of children who have disabilities.

General ideas on disabilities to share with your child:

  • No two people are the same.  Some differences are just more noticeable and that is not a bad thing.
  • A disability is only one characteristic and does not define a person. Children with disabilities have their own personalities, likes and dislikes and strengths and challenges.
  • Children with disabilities desire friends, respect and to be included, just like everyone else.
  • It isn’t possible to “catch” a disability from someone else. Children may be born disabled or become disabled from an accident or illness.
  • Just because someone has a physical disability does not mean he or she necessarily has a cognitive disability.
  • Children with disabilities can do many of the same things other children can do, but it might take them longer. They may need assistance or adaptive equipment to help them.

Use clear, respectful language when talking about someone with disabilities, and never put the disability or diagnosis before the child as it does not define him or her. For example, a child has Down syndrome and is not a “Downs kid.”

Many children with special needs attend public schools, but others may go to private or alternative schools. While each child learns differently and at his or her own pace, children with disabilities may need extra school support or accommodations. Special teachers may come into the classroom to work one-on-one or in a small group with the student(s).  Students who require individual attention may need to leave the classroom for part of the day. Accommodations may be present in the classroom, as well. For example, a teacher may wear a microphone so that a student with a hearing impairment can hear better in school.

When it comes to approaching someone with a disability, children are often better at it than adults because they are less inhibited. Likely, adults without previous exposure to people with disabilities may be more timid, worried about appearing intrusive or insensitive and may not know what to say or do.

If you are unsure of how to approach and treat another adult or child with a disability, it is likely that your child will be unsure as well.  Most parents of children with disabilities would prefer that other adults ask them about their child directly, rather than avoiding him or her. Even if a child is non-verbal or non-ambulatory, there are still activities that children can do together, such as arts and crafts.  If your child wants to have a play date with a child with a disability, simply call the other parent and ask how you can best accommodate the child.   Parents of children with disabilities will often be happy to facilitate a successful play date. Extra effort goes a long way. For instance, learning simple signs so that you can better communicate with a child who is deaf (and uses sign language) will go a long way.

Some ideas to help educate your children on disabilities include:

Picture and chapter books are a great way to help your child learn about children with special needs.  Choose books that are age appropriate and feature children with disabilities.  Read the books with your child and have an open discussion about what it means to have special needs.  Here are some great books toyou’re your started:

  • Friends With Disabilities, a series by Amanda Doering Tourville: This series includes books about Dyslexia, ADHD, Autism and Down syndrome and is appropriate for reading levels K-3.
  •  My Friend Isabelle by Eliza Woloson: a story about a boy named Charlie and his friend Isabelle, who has Down syndrome and is appropriate reading level for ages 4 and up.
  •  Don’t Call Me Special by Pat Thomas: a picture that addresses questions and concerns about physical disabilities and is appropriate reading level for ages 4-7.
  •  Susan Laughs by Jeanne Willis: a story that focuses on all the things Susan can do, like swimming, playing with her friends and riding a horse.  The end of the story reveals that Susan uses a wheelchair.  Appropriate reading level for ages 4-7.

Explore websites with fun, age-appropriate explanations and activities with your child, like Kids’ Quest from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Reading or learning about a disability is a great way for a child to further understand better peer support, but a parent’s perspective may be most helpful.  When parents have a basic understanding they will be able to better educate their children.

How do you talk to your children about accepting peers with disabilities and special needs?

Amy Bontempo is the Manager of Family and Community Engagement at Penfield Children’s Center.  She supervises the Community Outreach Educator, Volunteer Coordinator,  Parent Mentor Program, and Family Programs of which Penfield host over 60 per year.  She has served on the Board of Directors for the Down Syndrome Association (DSAW) of Wisconsin since 2011 and previously served on the Volunteer Respite Committee for Children’s Service Society now part of Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin Community Services, and the Family Resource Connection of Milwaukee Co.

Kashef, Ziba. “How to Talk to Your Child About Disabilities.” Babycenter. 1997-2013. BabyCenter, LLC.  .

”Kids’ Quest: On Disability and Health.” National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities. 25 October 2013. CDC: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 24 March 2011. , <http://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/Kids/index.html>.

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