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How to Teach Your Child to Show Respect to People With Special Needs

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A parent asked me how to best answer their kids when they have questions about individuals with special needs.

First of all, I’d like to thank that parent and anyone else who asks this question. Thank you for wanting to have an answer rather than just settling for the easy way out by distracting your child if they start to stare or shushing them if they start to ask.

Second of all, thank you for making me think about how to answer that question. And I have been thinking.

For children old enough to understand a more lengthy explanation, you could try something like this:

“Everyone single person in this world is unique and different. No two people are exactly the same. Some people are born with curly hair, while some people lose all of their hair when they get older. There are people with red hair and black hair and people with brown skin and pink skin. There are people with freckles and people with birthmarks. There are people who are good at playing football and people who love to make beautiful paintings. Some people love to read and some love to cook. We’re all different, and that’s what makes this world such a special place. I believe each one of us reflects part of who God is.

“Just like we’re all born with differences in the way we look and the way we act, some people are born with differences in the way their body works or how their brain works. Sometimes, people may have to be in a wheelchair because their legs don’t work. They may walk differently because their back isn’t straight. They may not be able to see, they may not be able to talk and they may not be able to learn and do everything the way you do.

“Having a brain or body that works differently doesn’t stop them from having fun, loving their friends, going to the park, snuggling with their mommy, playing with their daddy, learning to cook, having fun at a party or being who they’re meant to be.

“Sometimes, people aren’t able to talk the way you’ve learned to talk. Sometimes, they make noises that are different from the noises you make to express their feelings since their words don’t work the same as yours. They might squeal when they’re excited or moan when they are afraid. They may flap their arms to show they’re happy or duck their head into their chest to show they’re worried. They’re just showing us what they’re feeling and thinking by using sounds and movement.

“There’s no reason to be afraid when we see people who are different. I believe the very best thing you can do is smile and wave to let them know you think they’re great just the way they are.”

I’d even encourage you to show clips of movies that feature adults or children with special needs and then talk about it with your children before you’re in a situation in real life. Some of these movies include “Forrest Gump,” “Rain Man,” “The Boys Next Door,” “I Am Sam,” “Jack,” “Riding the Bus with My Sister,” “Praying With Lior” and “Martian Child.”

(Disclaimer: I’m not recommending these movies as family friendly or appropriate for your children to watch. I would encourage you to find a few appropriate scenes to watch with your children as points of discussion and for education about adults with special needs.)

In addition, a quick Amazon search came up with dozens of books featuring children with special needs. Take a trip to the library and do some digging of your own.

For very young children who can’t understand the explanation above, you can try this:

Obviously, keep it simple and let them be guided by your own reaction. In addition, if you want to develop a lifestyle as a family of appreciating and valuing children and adults with special needs, you need to be around them. Volunteer at a group home, a Down syndrome guild event, visit the special needs classroom at your public school, have a play date with a friend who has children with special needs. Get creative!

When you’re in public and see a child or adult with some type of special needs, please don’t ignore them. Wave and say hello if it feels appropriate. But be intentional about talking about what you have seen with your child. For young children, we all know that actual experience with the world around them is the best teacher.

Say things like this:

– Oh, look at that man having fun at the park. I don’t think he can talk, but he sure is showing how excited he is by the noises he is making. I love how excited he is.

– Oh, look at that little boy in the wheelchair. It looks like his legs don’t work the way yours do, but he’s sure having fun watching the seal at the zoo, isn’t he? I’m so glad his mommy was able to bring him to the zoo today.

As your children grow and learn, I believe you should continue to use every opportunity you can to make them aware of the beauty and value of everyone.

And as a mother with children who have special needs, I can promise you it would never offend me to have a parent and child approach me and ask me about my child. Do it in a tactful way, of course. Be appropriate. Don’t ask, “What’s wrong with your child?” or “What does your child have?”

Instead, say something like, “Your daughter is so beautiful and looks so happy to be at the park today. Would you mind if we said, ‘Hello’?”

Or even say, “It’s really important to me that my child learns to welcome children with special needs into their lives, and we would love to play with you for a little while, if that’s OK.”

And honestly, if your child does something “childish,” and it’s observed or heard by a parent of a child with special needs, acknowledge that, too. It’s so easy to say, “I’m sorry. My child has never seen a child in a wheelchair or a child with a breathing tube. Would you mind if we introduced ourselves? Can you tell me about your child? He sure does have a beautiful smile.”

Half of the challenge is your own response as a parent. If you shield your child’s eyes or cover their mouth, you’re reinforcing that what they’re observing or hearing is somehow wrong. If you embrace the moment and use it to teach your child, you’ll be giving your child an incredible gift.

Tracie Loux the-mighty-07102015-003
Photo credit: Dorean Beattie

Follow this journey on From the Heart.

The Mighty is asking the following: Tell us about a time someone went out of his or her way to make you and/or your child feel included or not included. 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 “Share Your Story” page for more about our submission guidelines.

Originally published: July 10, 2015
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