02 Dec Parenting: Addressing Questions About People with Disabilities
A couple of weeks ago, my daughter and I were visiting a friend. She has two daughters, a 3 year old, and a 5 year old who was diagnosed with autism a couple of years ago. Our children have known each other practically since birth, but now it seems that my five year old is becoming more aware of their differences.
During our last visits, I noticed that my little one plays predominantly with the 3 year old, rather than the 5 year old. I figured it would only be a matter of time before my daughter asked questions about the things she noticed about her friend’s behavior.
I’ve learned a little bit about Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) from my experience as a teacher and from another good friend who is working to raise her nine year-old son, diagnosed at age four. This limited knowledge helps me to understand what is going on when I see my friend’s daughter rocking and squealing as she “stims” (self-stimulates) to help regulate her own body’s and mind’s reactions to sensory input. This knowledge also helped prepare me for the inevitable “Why does she never listen to me? Or talk to me? She’s always just moving from side to side,” from my curious girl. Children being the patient little humans they are (said no mom ever), I knew I didn’t have much time to formulate my answer. So I answered her in the way I would want another mother to answer if it were my own child with special needs they were asking about. I tried gently and without judgment to explain that she is different. All people are. Some children are speaking incessantly from as early as 9-10 months. Some children learn to speak much later. And sadly some are never able to communicate in that way. Having said that, I quickly tried to shift the focus from why her friend was behaving this way, to what she should do to help. I explained that her friend was moving because it felt good to her and that it was a good idea to continue to try to talk to her. Her friend was learning more and more everyday and maybe someday there would be a chance for them to “talk” together. My baby smiled and nodded and seemed wiser after our interaction (or at least I hope).
Raising an empathetic child feels like a daunting task. Although I’m not always sure that I am doing a good job, I do try to live my life by the motto “More is caught than taught,” so I make it a point to show my daughter when and how we can help others–OFTEN. Last year when her classmate came over to me, hit my knee, and called me “Stupid”, it was the perfect moment to teach her about how to help Joey, who has special needs, and how to react when she has a similar experience with him. When our church announces they are collecting food items to donate to the local orphanage, we immediately head to the grocery store to choose items to send, all the while discussing important topics such as generosity and kindness. Which brings me to something I read a while ago, from the Washington Post. It instructed parents to tell their children “The most important thing is for you to be kind” rather than “The most important thing is your happiness”. This can help avoid developing the selfish idea that their own happiness should come above everyone and everything else. Children can instead learn that it is important to put someone else’s needs above their own sometimes. Not going to pretend it’s an easy task, but hopefully this will help her grow into an adult who is helping to improve the world in her own selfless way.
If your child has questions about others who are different whether in size, race, ability or anything, my best advice is to answer the question you are asked clearly, concisely, and WITHOUT judgment. K.I.S.S. “Keep It Simple Stupid Silly”. Don’t over complicate the situation or get too technical in your explanation. Encourage their curiosity, but focus on the fact that people are just people and our differences should be respected, even if not always understood.
As for me, I often think that I am learning just as much from my little one as she is learning from me. And for this, I am thankful everyday.