As the mom of an autistic child and a child who is hard of hearing, discussing the nature of disability has become de rigueur in our school planning. However, that's not going to be the case for everyone. How to talk to your kids about disabilities before you send them back to school will depend largely on your child's age, whether or not they're differently abled, and what the policies are at their schools. But no matter what, it should always be rooted in kindness and compassion.
It's never going to be particularly easy to talk to your kids about the different strengths we all have or how some of us are different, but we shouldn't let our fears or anxieties guide our hand when it comes to helping children grow to be compassionate adults. As the mom of an autistic child, I find that most parents do a decent job at the basics, the recitations of "please" and "thank you," and why you shouldn't bully other children. But many children don't understand how to interact with my son, and this can be problematic because they lose patience with him and begin to exclude him from activities. We as parents need to step up and talk to our children about how everyone is different, and how we are called as humans to learn acceptance and inclusion, and build patience and understanding.
I spoke with one of my son's paraprofessionals, Javier Alvogado, and he tells Romper, "The best way we help other students learn how to interact with kids with special needs is by being a good example ourselves." This makes sense. If your kids see you acting kindly or being patient in tough circumstances, they're more likely to exhibit the same level of patience. On the flip side, if they see you consistently losing your crap over a delay or slight inconveniences, they're going to act in the same manner.
Let's be truthful here. There are times when we are all less than graceful, and our kids see it. They see everything. That time when you harumphed behind a slow-moving person in the grocery store, when you joked with your partner about "How lazy must you be to buy pre-peeled clementines?" or when you double park in front of the store's handicap ramp "just for a few minutes." It doesn't seem like much, but that does real damage when your kids get to class and don't want to wait for the boy who takes longer to tie his shoes, or the girl who needs help opening her milk carton. "The behaviors we model the most are the ones they pick up on," Alvogado says.
It would be easy to leave it there, and believe that osmosis is all that's needed, but it's more complicated than that. Special needs teacher and special needs mom, Allie Ginsburg, of Brooklyn, New York tells Romper that "it needs to be an ongoing conversation. When you're eating lunch, explain that not all kids will eat the same way or be as neat, and that it might be because they have a hard time slowing down, or feeding themselves." She says that virtually everything is a possible teaching moment, but that if you break it down to its smallest components, "it's just about teaching our kids that everyone is different and will do things at different speeds and using different tools. Preach to their strengths, and make sure they know that is something unique about them, just like [your daughter's] hearing is unique to her."
She says it's also important to talk to them and explain how children may also look different because of their disability, or use apparatuses like hearing aids, crutches, wheelchairs, or adaptive devices like bounce balls and rubber bands. "It can startle kids to see other children who can't breathe or move on their own. That can cause kids to act out of character. If they're prepared for it, it's better for everyone," Ginsburg explains.
No one wants to hear that their kid is bullying, being bullied, or misunderstood. If you lead with grace and teach your kids to do the same, the world will be a kinder place for it.