I was asked to write this list for the MOPS group I'm a part of. It was included in a packet about manners and etiquette for children in various situations. I'm all about taking the fear out of interactions with my child, so I whole-heartedly agreed!
I didn't want the list to just be based on our personal opinions, though. I checked around on the internet and got a few ideas, but most of my research came as a result of a poll of a special needs group I have joined. I asked them what they would like to tell people to do or not do when dealing with their special needs child and his or her family. Let me tell you, the response was overwhelming! 50+ people responded with multiple suggestions. This is obviously a hot topic for special needs families and one that definitely needs to be addressed.
Therefore, I decided to also post the Top 10 list on here. I hope that it helps you know how to teach your children how to interact with special needs children.
Again, these are not solely my opinions. This is a compilation of suggestions from the families of children with a variety of special needs. We hope that you will take these thoughts into consideration the next time you encounter one of our wonderful children!!
Top 10 Manners for Interacting With Children of Special Needs and Their Families
1. It’s okay to ask questions. Children ask questions. That’s part of the learning process. Shushing your child if he or she asks questions about a special needs child suggests that the special needs child is something to be ashamed of. Instead, openly answer your child in a loving, gentle way that he or she can understand. If possible, try to link the child’s physical or mental disability to something your child already knows. If you aren’t sure about something and are close enough to the special needs family for them to hear your conversation, ask them to explain the machines or disability. Most parents would rather you ask about their child directly than avoid him or her. Plus, special needs parents are used to sharing about their child and will probably do a good job of explaining it in a way that your child can understand.
2. Be Tactful With Your Questions. Asking “What’s wrong with him?” is insulting to families who see their children as wonderful just the way they are. Instead, encourage your child to ask, “Why does she have to be in a wheelchair?” or “What is that machine for?” or "What's her story?" Of course, also help your child know when he or she has asked too many questions and is now just inconveniencing the family!
3. Staring is Embarrassing. When you see a special needs child out in public, turn your child’s staring into a teachable moment. Special needs families are probably used to staring, but that doesn’t mean that they enjoy it! Remember that special needs families are trying to live their lives just like you and don’t want to have to constantly feel “different.” Discuss with your child how he or she would feel if people stared at your family like that. Talk about how staring, even “sneaky staring,” makes people feel different and ashamed. Instead, encourage your child to smile, wave, and say “Hi!”
4. Start up a Conversation. As much as possible, children should speak to special needs children the same way they would speak to their own brother or sister (or maybe a little nicer!) :) While they may need to speak slower or repeat themselves (depending on the disability), it’s important that your child realize that special needs kids like to interact with other kids too! Often, these kids feel very isolated from their peers and they would welcome a friendly face.
5. Avoid Assumptions About Intelligence. Teach your child that a physical disability does not always equal a mental disability. Kids in wheelchairs or with physical deformities can often perform on the same academic level as peers, but are often treated by others as if they have learning disabilities.
6. Hands Off! Don’t touch a special needs child (especially the hands!) without permission from his or her parent. Often, kids with special needs have compromised immune systems that make them more susceptible to illnesses than other kids. Likewise, make sure sick children keep a safe distance from special needs children when possible. In addition, some children with sensory issues may not respond well to being touched by strangers. This could cause an episode that will draw even more unwanted attention to the special needs child. Take the cue from the parent, but err on the side of caution with this one.
7. Encourage Them to Find Common Ground. No two people are alike, but everyone has something in common. Regardless of differences, it's important to encourage children to look for things that they can relate to in others. Do both students adore the classroom hamster? Are both great basketball players? Finding common ground builds character and strengthens interactions between children.
8. Avoid Using the Term “Normal.” What’s normal, anyway?! The standard of “normal” changes depending on who you’re talking to, and I would venture to say that most of us would be out of the range of “normal” in at least one category! Using this term sends the message to kids that special needs kids are weird, or that there is something bad about them. Instead, use words like “typical” or the phrase “typically developing.” One mom says she likes, “radically distinctive!”
9. Be Conscious of Your Facial Expressions. Help your child to be aware of his or her facial expressions toward special needs children. You have no idea how many looks of disgust we have gotten, and that is hurtful to families who love their children unconditionally.
10. Don’t Show Pity. It is sometimes very difficult to see a child with major medical problems, but showing pity or saying, “I’m so sorry” sends a message to your child that this is a bad situation or something for which to apologize. For special needs families, they are just thankful to have their children and are doing their best to give them a fulfilling life. These families have fought through the hard times and are stronger for it, so take a cue from them and celebrate the small victories!