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What Not to Do When Interacting With Kids With Disabilities (and What to Do Instead)

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I’ve often talked about feeling isolated as the parent of a child on the autism spectrum, so I’ve been asked, “What can we do!?”

I’ve put together a simple list of what not to do and what to do instead!

Don’t: Speak over the top of my child as if she can’t hear you.

You would be surprised at how often this happens! Just because she can’t talk, doesn’t mean she can’t understand. Don’t exclude a child from the conversation once you realize they can’t talk or hear.

Instead: Speak directly to my child.

Wait and give her a chance to answer herself, either by using sign or her device. The parent might have to use sign to translate, but still, talk to the child! The conversation might move slower but our kids want to be included and treated the same as everyone else.

Don’t: Shus’ your children and drag them away when they show interest in talking to my child or ask questions about her.

All this accomplishes is teaching them to be weary of their peers and adults with disabilities, and it’s not nice. Don’t make your children ashamed for asking questions, kids are curious, Let them be curious!

Instead: Have the “everyone is different” conversation with your kids.

A few key points to make would be that some people learn at different rates, point out something that was hard for your child to learn, (whistling is a good example) and explain that some kids take longer to learn how to walk or talk. Or that some kids talk with their hands, or need a bit of extra help to play. Remember to use language that is kid friendly, and adjust according to ages and development level. A very important note to talk to kids about is that even though some kids look or act differently, they can still be friends!
And don’t just have the talk once, when you happen to see a person with a disability, have it again. Read stories about people in wheelchairs, talk about autistic behaviors, watch movies with disabled people in them. Let them ask questions, and most importantly, let them play with our kids!

Exposure to differences is the biggest way to overcome any fear they may have.


Don’t: Judge when you see a child having a meltdown in public.

Meltdowns look different for every child, and just like every meltdown is different, every solution is different too. I know if I try to move or talk to my child it will aggravate her more, so I just have to wait and keep her safe. Don’t offer advice like spanking/discipline (chances are we’ve tried everything before) or suggest our child is throwing a “tantrum.” A tantrum is not the same as a meltdown. Trust that the parent knows best, after all, we’ve been doing it for years. Don’t stare, don’t look from the corner of your eye, don’t get that disapproving look on your face (we can see you), don’t whisper loudly to your friend, “my child would never behave like that in public.” We can hear you.

Instead: Offer support.

Don’t say, “Can I help?” because nine times out of 10 we’re conditioned to say no, even when we’re dying inside. Sometimes having another grown up to talk to is enough of a distraction for us and sometimes even for our kids. And it helps us feel not so helpless. If you’re not able to help, even just a small smile of solidarity is enough to make us feel better.  A smile is all it takes to say, “I see you, I understand, you aren’t alone.”

Don’t: Say anything that starts with “at least.”

I know this seems broad, but I’ll try to explain. Every offensive, hurtful thing I’ve been told seems to start with “at least.”

“At least she’ll never take drugs.”
“At least she won’t get knocked up at a young age.”
“At least she’ll never talk back.”
“At least he can’t run away from you.”
“At least she’ll never grow up.”
“At least you don’t have to worry about boys.”

And yes, these are all real examples.

Other things to steer clear of are:

“What’s wrong with her?”
“When will he grow out of it?”

I find both of these to be extremely rude.

Instead: Comment on literally anything other than their medical condition.

Or comment on something you notice their child doing well — without patronising. It sounds hard but it’s really quite simple, all you need to do is look at the whole person and treat them like a regular kid! Treat them and talk to them like real people!

Don’t: Pity us.

This one is pretty self explanatory, nobody likes people to feel sorry for them!

Instead: Show understanding.

Tell us we’re doing a good job, because I can guarantee many of us feel like we’re not. Appreciate that we’re doing our best. Understand that we may have to cancel a coffee date, or can’t make it to a birthday party, or seem flaky — we are trying our best but sometimes it’s just not possible. Basically, just cut us some slack.

Getty image by LSOphoto

Originally published: May 7, 2019
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