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6 Ways to Talk to Your Child About Disabilities

Follow these steps to get the conversation going.



Conversations about people with disabilities have been at an all-time high thanks to movies and TV shows that feature characters with a variety of differences and special needs, including Finding Dory, Speechless and Atypical.

There have also been heart-warming headlines of communities coming together to support those with autism. These stories have helped reduce the painful stigma people with emotional, behavioral or cognitive differences face every day.

Professional and clinical experts encourage parents to take advantage of this heightened awareness to initiate conversations with their children to develop an understanding of, and compassion for, children and adults with disabilities.

Below are some tips to help parents kick off these conversations.

1. Educate yourself first: There are many kinds of disorders and disabilities and not all are visible. If you learn the basics and understand them, talking to your child will be much easier. Plus, it sets a great example for your children to model.

2. Use casual opportunities to start conversations: If possible, try to relate the individual with the disability to your child. For example: “Look at that! Johnny likes trains just like you do!” Ask general questions to discover what your child knows and thinks about disabilities; it’s an easy way to initiate a conversation. For instance: “What did you think of that part (XYZ) in the movie?” or “The character (name) was a pretty cool part of the show. He/she has XYZ disability or is in a wheelchair. Do you know anyone like (name of character)? What do you think about that?”

3. Provide accurate but digestible information: Depending on the age of your child, you will want to deliver information in an age-appropriate and understandable way. If your child is younger, a simple sentence or two may be enough. “His/her brain works a little differently than yours, honey. That’s OK – we’re all different and special in our own way,” or “The wheelchair David is sitting in helps him get around, just like you use your legs to walk and run.” Of course, older children can understand more detailed conversations, so you may want to research the topic together so you can both learn more.

4. Reassure your child: Let him know that people with special needs and disabilities are human beings, just like everyone else. They feel the same feelings, have the same basic needs and didn’t choose to be different. Disabilities aren’t contagious or something that can be passed from one person to another.

5. Remind your child about treating others with respect: Talk to your child about the Golden Rule: “Treat others the same way you want to be treated.” It’s also critical to understand that an individual is not defined by his or her disability. For instance, use person-first language, such as: “Annie has autism” instead of “Annie is autistic.”

6. Take it slow: Allow your child to take some time to think about your conversation and follow-up later. To kick off this discussion say, “Remember when we were talking about disabilities? I was wondering if you had any thoughts or questions, now that you’ve had time to think about it.”

Use stories and examples to promote understanding and awareness of disabilities with your children. It is a vital way to reduce stigma and make our communities more welcoming places for all.

Amy Kelly is the director of family/community services for Devereux Advanced Behavioral Health.

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