How to Talk to Children about Disabilities

2016 was an important year for disability awareness. Popular movies such as Finding Dory and TV shows like Speechless featured characters with many types of differences and special needs.

Recently, stories of communities and businesses coming together to support and embrace individuals with autism have made national headlines, and these stories continue to warm our hearts. Increased visibility goes a long way toward reducing the painful stigma those with emotional, behavioral or cognitive differences face every day.

Professional and clinical experts at Devereux Advanced Behavioral Health encourage parents to take advantage of this heightened awareness to initiate conversations with their children about developing an understanding of, and having compassion for, children and adults with disabilities.

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

1. Educate yourself about disabilities first

There are many kinds of disorders and disabilities, and not all are visible. Learning the basics – and being comfortable with your own understanding of these differences – will make talking to your child much easier. Plus, it sets a great example for your children to model.

2. Use casual opportunities to start conversations about disabilities

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!” Asking general questions to discover what your child knows and thinks about disabilities is also 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 about disabilities

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 okay – 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

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.” Note: For a helpful article on person-first language, click here.

6. Take it slow

Allow your child to take some time to think about your conversation, and then follow-up later. To kick off this discussion, try saying, “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.”


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

Devereux Advanced Behavioral Health is one of the largest and most advanced behavioral healthcare organizations in the country. Its mission is to changes lives – by unlocking and nurturing human potential for people living with emotional, behavioral or cognitive differences.


Amy Kelly is mother to Danny, Annie and Ryan. Annie is diagnosed with moderate to severe autism, verbal apraxia, intellectual and developmental disabilities and general anxiety disorder. Amy is the Director of Family/Community Services for Devereux Advanced Behavioral Health and serves as a family representative on several special needs boards in the community, locally and nationally, including the Autism Speaks Autism Treatment Network and The American Board of Pediatrics Foundation.

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