Talking to children about special needs may seem tricky, but children understand more than we give them credit for. They’re very observant, taking in everything around them, regardless of their cognitive ability. Your child — whether they themselves have special needs or not — may come to you with questions about disabilities, and it’s important to have answers for them. Here’s how to explain special needs to a child: We’ll cover how to explain diagnoses to your child with special needs and how to explain special needs to able-minded children.
How to Explain a Diagnosis to Your Special Needs Child
If you have a child with special needs, this section is for you. If your child has a physical disability, this section is not so relevant to your child. Since their cognitive ability is unhindered, they are likely very aware of their disability and don’t need it to be explained to them. However, if your child has a cognitive disability, they may glean from their interactions with other children that there’s something different about them. When your child comes to you with questions, here’s how to address them.
Remind Them There’s Nothing Wrong With Them
First and foremost, it’s important to stress that there’s nothing wrong with your child with special needs. Having special needs simply makes them different, not bad, not a burden, just a different kind of special. Lots of other people have special needs — you may even take this time to point out friends of theirs who have special needs to remind them that they’re not alone.
From here, you can point out the sameness between them and able-minded children:
- Liking TV shows
- Enjoying good stories
- Going to the park
- Attending school
- Having friends
- Having a family
Talk Matter-of-Factly About the Symptoms
While covering the areas of sameness are important, it’s also important that you’re clear in your answer to your child’s question. There are areas of difference between your child and their able-minded peers. Answering honestly will show your child that you respect them enough to tell them the truth. When you point out the differences, be careful about the language you use. Be as straightforward as possible.
For example, if your child has autism, you might tell your child that they’re more sensitive to senses than other children. You can give specific examples of how fun lights are for them or have irritating clothes can be sometimes. If your child has down syndrome, you can explain that your child simply seems the world a little differently. They’re more attuned to their feelings, which means that they can have fun more easily and they can get upset more easily. It’s just different, and that’s OK. There’s nothing wrong with them.
Get Insight into Your Child’s Curiosity
It shouldn’t necessarily be your first question, but if your child is expressly asking you about their special needs, it’s important to understand why. Namely, it’s important to know whether or not they’re being bullied for being different.
You may think that your child would be forthright about being bullied, but children with special needs are very intuitive. They understand that there’s a faux pas against tattling, so they may try to downplay what’s really going on.
Here are some signs your special needs child is being bullied:
- Tries often to get out of going to school or day hab
- Wants to avoid specific areas, like the bus or going to a certain friend’s house
- Seems withdrawn or experiences more behavioral outbursts than usual
- Sleep habits have changed
- Suddenly coming home without their belongings
If you suspect your child is being bullied, you can go to their caretakers at school, day hab, the bus, or any other area where they interact with other children where you’re unable to supervise them. Ask, “How does my child get along with the other students? Is there anything I should know about?” If you think your child’s caretakers have been mishandling a situation involving bullying, escalate the situation as high as you can with their supervisors.
How to Explain Special Needs to a Child
If you have an able-minded child who is asking you about special needs, it’s important to address their questions with both honesty and a positive attitude. If your child isn’t necessarily asking you about special needs, but is instead talking about a kid at school who seems “weird,” this is also a great opportunity to explain that sometimes other kids are going to be different and that doesn’t make them weird. Here’s how to explain special needs to a child:
Talk About It, Even Before They Ask
Again, your kid is much more perceptive than you might realize. They’re listening to everything you say. Before they even ask about special needs or mention a kid who seems different in class, it’s important that you’re mentioning special needs and that you’re talking about it in a positive, matter-of-fact way.
Use Person-First Language
Instead of saying special needs child or autistic child, you can say things like, “The boy in your class with autism” or “the girl at daycare with down syndrome.” Phrases like these can stress the sameness, reminding your child that, while there are differences between them and their peer, there is also much about them that is the same.
Talk About the Symptoms
When talking about special needs with your child, mention specific symptoms and be straightforward. Explain that children with autism are going to be more sensitive to things that seem background to your child, like lights, textures, foods, etc. If a child with autism is having a hard day, you can remind your child that they are probably experiencing something your child isn’t.
Educate Your Child About Bullying
It’s important to talk to your child about bullying, not only to keep them safe from bullies themselves, but also to keep them from bullying. It’s very likely that your child understands that bullying is bad, but they may not realize that what they’re doing could be considered bullying. For example, if they actively exclude a child with special needs at school from activities, this could be a form of bullying.
Examples of bullying:
- Name calling
- Talking rudely to a specific peer or group
- Singling out a child for being different
- Taking belongings
- Tricking the child into doing something that will get them in trouble
- Telling the child about inappropriate, grownup subjects
If after talking to your child about bullying, you discover that your child has been bullying a child with special needs, get your child to apologize to the child and make amends.
Special Needs Activities
If you have a child with special needs and want them to be in an inclusive environment, consider signing them up for private training sessions or boot camp classes with Special Strong. If you have an able-minded child, you might consider signing them up for boot camp classes to familiarize them with people with special needs.