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6 Tips for Talking to Your Toddler About Disabilities

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Editor's Note

Hi there, this is just a quick note to let you know that you’ve reached one of our older stories here on The Mighty, and it contains some outdated language. We’ve updated our editorial guidelines, and no longer use “special needs” to refer to children or adults with disabilities. “Disabled” is not a bad word, and children with disabilities have human needs, not special needs. You can learn more about the reasons for this change here. We’ve updated our vocabulary, and we hope you will, too.

As a parent of two children with special needs and one neurotypical child, I get asked a lot about this topic. And to be honest, even after building our special needs ministry at church and being part of the special needs community for seven years, I’m still learning how to talk to my 3-year-old and her friends about special needs. So, yay! We can navigate it together!

Let’s say you are at Target, picking up some milk and body wash, and you find yourself in the woman’s clothing section. (Don’t worry, we all do it.) While you’re browsing the cute sweaters, your toddler says, “Mommy, look at that boy! Why is he so loud?” You look down at your sweet toddler for a second and then scan the aisles. You see him. He seems to have special needs, and you glance away. God forbid his mom sees you looking, or worse, heard your toddler’s observation in her “outdoor” voice.

Stefanie Boyce's daughter at Target.
Stefanie’s daughter, Ellie.

What do you say? Do you shush your curious toddler and make a mad dash for the soap aisle? Do you say something, and if so, what?

Breathe. You are not alone. We all have these moments when we see someone who appears “different” than us and we internally panic for a bit. Here are some “best practices” to have in your parenting toolbox the next time you find yourself in a similar situation.

It starts with you. Bad or good, how you react will inform your child’s reaction. (I know you know that, but it’s a good reminder for the both of us, so that one’s free.)

1. Praise your child’s curiosity.

It’s a good thing she’s asking good questions. Don’t shut her down. Be thankful it’s you she’s asking. It’s something she’s curious about and that’s how we all learn. So way to go, kid! She’s paying attention to the world around her. I would simply say, “Good question!”

If your child said something that makes you want to crawl under a rock like, “Why is that child drooling?” don’t freak out. You’ve taught your kid to be descriptive and observant. In fact, most kids are pointing out the obvious. We’re the ones making it uncomfortable because we can hear our mothers telling us to be nice. Don’t shame your child. Normalize the conversation. “I bet there’s a really good reason.”

2. Take action.

Then I would say, “Let’s go meet him!” Now, that’s assuming his mom is there for milk and body wash and happens to be browsing sweaters as well. (It goes without saying, but I wouldn’t recommend meeting the child unless you think it’s a good time to engage a conversation with a stranger. If not, skip to step 6.)

3. Talk normally.

How you would address a stranger is how you would address a person with special needs. Think of it like this. How would you want someone to interact with your neurotypical child? My favorite interactions with strangers have been when they lead with a compliment. “Oh, your shoes are so cute!” “What beautiful eyelashes!” “Look at that hair!” Talk directly to the child and find something to compliment. Smile. Kids smell fear so be as cool and calm as a mom can.

I would take my toddler by the hand or hold her, communicating she’s safe, and I would go up to the mom and boy and say, “Hello! My name is Stefanie and this is my daughter, Ellie. We noticed your cool chair (maybe if he was in a wheelchair) and awesome Spider-Man T-shirt. What’s your name?” Notice, I addressed the nonverbal child. I didn’t talk through him or over him, which leads me to my next point.

4. Assume comprehension.

Assume they can understand. The parent will speak for the child if necessary. One of the biggest misconceptions when observing a physical limitation is that there’s also a cognitive one. We have no idea what a nonverbal child can understand, so your default should be they understand everything.

One child asked if my middle daughter, Brooklyn, could talk. I first thought no, because I was thinking verbally. But Brooklyn can talk, I told them. She communicates with her eyes, her smile and her body language. We just have to be better listeners. And I know she understands a lot more than she can express.

5. Follow up.

After we smile and say, “It was nice to meet you, Johnny!” I would typically walk away and wait until we got to the car to have a follow-up conversation with my daughter. However, if the mom seems open and your child is a bit more curious, I would say, “Do you mind telling me a little bit about Johnny?” Or even better, “Johnny, can you tell me a bit about yourself?” Stay away from “What’s wrong?” “What’s his problem?” or “What happened?” And here’s why…

6. See this as a teaching opportunity.

What we teach our kids about themselves is how they will see others. If we focus on their abilities, they will judge others in the same way. If we focus on their character and who they’re becoming, they will judge others likewise.

In the end, it’s not about special needs, really. It’s about how we treat one another, regardless of what we see.

A version of this post originally appeared on Boyce Lane.

The Mighty is asking the following: What’s one thing people might not know about your experience with disability, disease or mental illness, and what would you say to teach them? If you’d like to participate, please send a blog post to Please include a photo for the piece, a photo of yourself and 1-2 sentence bio. Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

Originally published: March 31, 2016
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