5 Tips for When Children Ask Questions About Others With Special Needs


Yesterday morning, I took two of my sons, Wesley and James, to the gastroenterologist for their regular G-tube and weight visits. I brought my daughter Harper along, but the other kids had stayed with my husband Michael since I left the house at 7 a.m., so he got them up and going.

As we were leaving the clinic, there was a little boy, who was probably 6 or so, and his mom. This is a specialty clinic, so many of the children there have some form of medical or other special needs.

I wheeled Wesley’s chair out, carrying Harper and giving directions to James of where to go, and I heard the little boy loudly say to his mom, “Why’s he in that? Why isn’t he walking?” Since I was busy, I didn’t turn or react, but it seemed clear to me his mom had no idea what to say and was trying to get him to just be quiet until we had left. The little boy said again, “Why is he in that?” At this point, I was almost to the door, but it’s a small waiting room, and I was trying to navigate opening the door and getting James out along with the baby and the chair. The mom saw me and started to get up to come help. The boy said again, “Why doesn’t he walk?” By now I felt like I was “engaging” with them since the mom was asking if she could help (I had already managed it, though I do appreciate that she took concern) — so I answered the little boy.

“Wesley uses a wheelchair because he can’t use his legs to walk. It’s just the way he is, and it’s OK. The wheelchair helps him get around though.” Then I smiled at his mom and the nurse and secretary who were getting nervous at the desk, and I pushed the chair the rest of the way out the door and left.

I’m sure I asked this question of other parents before I was the mother I am today — because we often do wonder how to answer our kids’ loud and maybe “non-PC” questions. Here are a few thoughts on what things seem to make my kids feel good about themselves and what things make me feel good about the interactions based around the “why” questions that often come up about our children.

1. Don’t ignore your kid. They’ll probably just ask louder. For real, we’ve been there (my kids have asked these questions, too!). Kids’ questions are innocent most of the time, and I believe it’s good to acknowledge that they asked!

2. Don’t let your kid be rude. If they point out an obvious scar or other facial difference, then I believe it’s best to address your child and let them know that’s not a nice way to ask a question, and that because a person is “different” doesn’t mean they should say things in a mean way.

3. Answer their question. I’ve found “I don’t know why” is often an OK answer to questions kids ask. If the question is about a device, wheelchair, brace, cast, etc., then, in my opinion, saying “They must need it” is all right.

4. Don’t make up a story. The child or adult who is the topic of your conversation may be listening. Don’t make up a story to make it easier to explain their differences. Everyone has their own story, and for the person with special needs hearing you tell a story about them, this may only make them feel more conflicted about being talked about.

5. Address the person! Yep, I’d say go ahead and ask! As long as it is a respectful question, go with your child to talk to the person with special needs. In doing so, here are some more tips…

  • Assume competence! Talk to the person with special needs, not their caregiver. Even if the person with special needs cannot talk, I’ve found it’s usually OK to talk directly to them. They might surprise you!
  • Ask them their name or how old they are first, and then ask if they will tell you about their wheelchair — or brace, or hearing aides, or what have you —if there’s a specific question your child would like to know about. Don’t forget to introduce yourself!
  • Keep in mind the person you’re speaking to may be sensitive about some things, and be respectful to them in how you ask and what you ask about. If your child asks something inappropriate, remind them “they might not want to talk about that,” or “there’s a nicer way for you to ask them about that.”
  • “Can I give you a high-five?” is sometimes a fun way to engage with others. Perhaps you can suggest your child ask this of people they want to engage with. Even if they don’t talk to the person other than to ask for a high-five or knuckle bump, they might just make that person’s day. Teach your child to be patient and gentle.
  • If your child is pressing for information the person with special needs or their caregiver has already answered or is clearly not comfortable answering, then do whatever you need to do to let your child know they need to accept the information that’s been given. Then thank the child (and their caregiver) for talking with you.
  • You can make a person’s day by remembering their name. Say goodbye using their name and a smile, even if the conversation didn’t go as you may have hoped.

In a world of political correctness, sometimes we can worry too much about how our child (or we ourselves!) are being perceived and don’t worry enough about just being nice to each other. Every one of my kids will give a high-five or knuckle bump, even though they can’t all talk. When someone goes out of their way to engage with them, especially to call them by name, they love it.

As the mom of six kids with varying special needs and the mom of five “typically developing” (and curious!) kids, I see the value in teaching all of our kids to be respectful, to remember that kids with special needs are kids, and in encouraging kids to reach out to others who are different from themselves.

Image via Contributor.

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