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When People Talk About My Daughter With Special Needs as If She Isn't There

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There are a few things that get under my skin when it comes to how people interact with our child who has special needs. One of them is when people start talking or asking questions about her as if she isn’t there. I hate it when people look at her sitting right next to me in her wheelchair, then look at me and start to talk about her. I understand her communication ability is limited, but that does not mean she doesn’t understand! She wants you to talk to her, not over her.

Imagine you’re out to lunch with two friends. Your friends start to look at you, then back at each other. The whole time you’re out for lunch, they are having a conversation about you. They’re talking as if you’re not even there. You hear everything, comprehend everything, want to give your opinion but they don’t invite you into the conversation. How does that make you feel? Pretty crummy, huh?

I know most people would never dream of being so rude when out to lunch with their friends. But they do exactly that when they bypass an individual with special needs and talk only to their parent/caregiver. I acknowledge that some children can’t can open their lips and speak an answer.  But some might speak through sign language, a communication device, eye gazes, or sounds. You might not understand what they are telling you, but that is when you can invite the caregiver/parent to interpret for you.

When it comes to my daughter, I will often lean over, repeat the question, offer an answer and ask if I’m right. That way I can answer the question with words she may not be able to say yet, but I give her the opportunity to agree or disagree with me. If the answer consists of words she can say, I will ask her to answer for herself. If she doesn’t respond right away, I might ask again by stating the question differently. For example, if someone asks what kind of books she likes, I might say “Do you like Pete the Cat books, or do you like Superman books?” and then she will answer “Pete the Cat”.

Our children with special needs can think, process information, and have feelings and emotions just like you do. If every social encounter you had went like the lunch example, how long would it be before you felt emotionally defeated?  How long before you would give up on trying to communicate? At what point would you just not care anymore, and possibly fall into depression?

On the flip side of the coin, how uplifting is it when someone engages in a conversation with you? It doesn’t take long to feel valued when others are genuinely trying to know you better.

My challenge for you is be intentional with your conversations with children who have special needs. Ask questions and talk to them; look beyond their disability. Talk to them as an individual. You’ll probably find out you have more in common than you think!

Follow this journey on Raising the Extraordinary.

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Originally published: November 9, 2016
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