It’s that time of year. School has been in session for a few weeks, like Alex’s school, or just starting, like his best friend’s school. With a new school year come new classmates as well. Depending on your child’s age, they may be getting to the point where they notice that some of their classmates are different than they are. Their classmate may look different, or act different, or need special help in the form of an aide or going to a different classroom at certain times. Kids pick up on a lot more than we give them credit for. So what do you do when your child comments that “Sarah talks funny” and you find out that she has Down syndrome? Or “Matthew hums a lot” and you know that he has autism? Or “Donovan is always talking and can’t sit still” and you know he has ADHD? How do you explain special needs to a child?
We have been trying to explain to Alex how his sister needs extra help because she has Down syndrome. We do have the benefit of comparison because he gets special help in school because of his ADHD. The thing I’ve realized is that a lot of it will depend on your child and how they process new information.
But how to explain special needs to your child? Please keep in mind that I am not an expert in child development. I am a mom of two. The extent of my expertise is simply trial and error. Now with that disclaimer out of the way, onto my thoughts.
Explain that the child is different than most kids and that is ok. Differences are what make this life interesting. If possible, draw a parallel to something they struggle with. We explain to Alex that Mary needs extra help learning to do things, like he needs help learning his words and pronouncing them correctly in speech therapy. If you know the parents of the child and their diagnosis, explain the diagnosis at a level they will understand. “Sarah has Down syndrome. She has an extra chromosome and sometimes that means things will be more difficult for her and she might need help doing things. And there is nothing wrong with that. Is Sarah one of your friends?”
Don’t stop kids from asking questions if they see someone that looks different. I’ve had kids comment on Alex’s behavior, such as “he’s loud” or “why won’t he sit still?” I tell them that he has ADHD, which means he has extra energy to use up and it makes it hard for him to sit still, but that means he can also pay attention to a lot of things at once. They say “Ok” and go on playing. I know there will be questions about Mary as she gets older, and I will answer them the best I can in a way they will understand.
Children learn by example. If they want a playdate with this classmate, get in contact with the parents. Avoiding it could show them that it’s somehow wrong to want to be their friend. Don’t speak badly about someone who is different, because that will teach them that different = bad.
Today, more students with special needs are being included in the classroom than in generations before. We are seeing their needs and accommodating them. And this leads into increased exposure with our children, more questions, more understanding, and hopefully a better future for all of them.