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Back-to-School Talks When Your Child Has a Disability

As back-to-school approaches, many parents give “the talk” at their child’s school. This is usually a presentation about having a classmate with a disability in their classroom (or school). The overall objective is inclusion and acceptance. Over the years, I have spoken to a few groups of students about my son, George, who has Down syndrome.

I have included discussions on what Down syndrome is, I remind his classmates not to be afraid because Down syndrome it’s not contagious, and I share that my son has some unique needs, but in many ways is just like them.

In kindergarten, I showed George’s baby picture and explained that I was so worried he wouldn’t have any friends. Several hands shut up, “But George is my friend” they said. “Well that’s great, but I was worried because he has Down syndrome.” I explained. “What is that?” they asked. Have they really not noticed? I thought. “Well you know how George is a little different from the rest of you?” I continued. “Yes! “ A boy in the front interrupted, “He has really white skin!”

I also remember speaking to a group of fourth-graders. By then, his classmates were well aware of the differences. I had also heard there was some teasing and bullying taking place. I tried to emphasize the difficulties George due to his disability. I had the kids do some simulations, for example, having the kids try to write their name with socks on their hands which could make them recognize fine motor skills difficulties due to low muscle tone, like George. We practiced saying the alphabet with a big marshmallow in our mouths demonstrating low muscle tone in your mouth and George’s speech difficulties. I also highlighted the experiences that made George just like them: playing sports, going on vacations, etc. I even shamelessly showed them a photo of George next to National Football League player Larry Fitzgerald, a hometown favorite celebrity. They were envious. But hopefully they saw a different, cooler side of George.

By seventh grade, George participated in an after school flag football league. Appealing to their stomachs with cookies after practice, I thanked them for accepting George on their team. During game time, a few kids tossed the ball around with George, they even yelled at him at a game when he messed up a hike, causing a missed down. At first I was startled, but hey, that’s what friends and football players do, and wasn’t my objective inclusion?

As we get ready for eighth grade, I asked George if he was excited for school. He said, “Yes I have lots of friends!” But later he pondered “Not everyone likes me.”

That’s OK George, in real life that happens to all of us.