Special Friends

Most of us would like to be smart, funny, beautiful, athletic, accomplished in business and, well, maybe a little bit closer to celebrity-style perfection. But have you ever thought about what our world would be like if we all looked and acted the same? And, more importantly, have you ever said as much to your child when she is posing questions such as, “Why can’t Johnny read out loud better?” or “Why is it so hard for Susie to do math problems?” or “Why can’t Chris ever get the ball in the basket during recess?”

You can fill in the questions with a multitude of different talents individuals have or lack. Parents who help children understand and embrace the differences in people instill a lifelong ability to accept unique character traits as the flavor in our world. After all, what child wants to go to Baskin Robbins and be offered a choice of vanilla or vanilla? Half of the adventure, in life and in ice cream, is the endless possibilities that can be arranged so magnificently to make an original every time.

Perhaps no one sees this more clearly than those who interact on a daily basis with children who have developmental disabilities or other challenges.

Start with Patience

Special education teacher Susan McDermott says she tells children we are all different. “We have different color. We speak differently. Our voices sound a bit different. We are good at different things,” says McDermott, who teaches at Davis Drive Elementary in Cary.

She explains it is important to cultivate patience in children when they begin to recognize those differences. If, for example, your child approaches you with a question such as, “Why can’t Johnny sit quietly in class?” McDermott suggests making a personal correlation to something in your child’s realm of experience. An example of a response to a typical child might be: “Remember how long it took you to learn how to tie your shoes? But you eventually learned how to do it, didn’t you?” Then add that perhaps “Johnny” is having trouble learning how to sit quietly in class, and he just needs some understanding.

Most of the time, children are much better at dealing with these situations than parents. In fact, children can be so direct and outspoken that parents are taken aback.

“I think children get uncomfortable when parents are uncomfortable,” McDermott says. “It’s not that parents don’t want their children to interact [with special needs children], they feel uncomfortable because they are afraid they will make a mistake,” she says. “And they should just be themselves and put their best foot forward and teach their children patience.”

Parents Set the Tone

Parents of kids with special needs who have experienced a spectrum of responses from the community say that educating children about the needs of others and focusing on kindness and respect toward all people is key.

“I think it starts with the parents and their attitudes,” says Linda Donoghue of Apex, the parent of a child with special needs. “Parents should be the ones that teach values and morals, and how to accept people no matter who or what they are. If they ‘shy’ off a situation, their children will also.”

Cary parent, Lisa McNeill, echoes that sentiment. McNeill’s daughter was born with infant cataracts and an anomaly that results in other eye problems. McNeill would much prefer children and adults ask questions about Mary’s eye patch instead of being fearful and avoiding them altogether. When she was preschool, Mary was called names a few times because she looked different. This does not happen as much now that the children are more mature and aware.

“We have worked hard to get her to advocate for herself,” says McNeill, who feels it’s helpful to make other people feel as comfortable as possible. For instance, if a child is staring at her daughter, McNeill suggests her daughter break the ice with a “hello” and then follow with explanations, if needed. If children do approach Mary and ask about her eye patch, Mary explains that she was born with some eye problems.

McNeill’s daughter was fortunate to have a buddy that stood up for her in preschool. And her older sister, Samantha, is good about fielding questions from other children.

A disability is just like any other difference between people, says McNeill. She feels if children learn more about everything from eye patches to autism, they will be more accepting of these situations. “A lot of kids are already more accepting these days,” she says, “because they have been exposed to more children with special needs.”

Talk About Different Perspectives

A big step toward teaching children compassion is making them aware of the challenges others may face.

Helen Keller’s story leaves a huge impression on children who may be unaware of the challenges people can encounter due to developmental disabilities. Since this story is also an example of personal triumph and persistence, it teaches all children to strive to be their best no matter what their circumstances. See the sidebar for other suggested reading material for children.

A National Organization called PACER, Parent Advocacy Coalition for Educational Rights, offers a disability awareness manual for parents and teachers and a puppet show with life-size puppets that teaches children about various disabilities.

But experience is, as usual, the best teacher. Use encounters with others in the community to increase your child’s awareness and understanding. If you see a child in a wheelchair, instead of hushing your child’s questions, consider approaching the person to say “hello.”

Many parents of special needs children interviewed for this article had a sense of humor about the “grocery store moment” situations. It’s not like they don’t know their child is in a wheelchair or has autism or Downs Syndrome, they say. At the very least, be open with your child about the challenges people experience and try to educate them.

Lessons on the Playground

All children like to play. And children with special challenges are, first and foremost, children. They want to laugh and play and be with other children. They do not want to be pointed at, mocked, ignored or bullied. But then, what child does?

Jennifer Tabery, a youth programs specialist with Raleigh Parks and Recreation, heads up youth activities for children birth to age 16 with developmental disabilities. Some of the programs also include play with “typical” children, many of whom are siblings of children with special needs.

“Play is a good way to interact with children who have special needs,” Tabery says. “Academically, we may not all be at the same level, but on the playground it can be a little more level field.”

Playing with children who have more advanced motor skills helps special needs children improve their performance. But they aren’t the only ones gaining from the interchange. Tabery says typical children learn patience when a child may not throw the ball back quite as fast as they are accustomed to.

“Children learn to be sympathetic, and they learn good sportsmanship on top of all that. I think the typical children get as much or more out of these programs as the special needs children,” says Tabery.

Typical children should be aware that children with special needs may speak more slowly or be less clear in their speech, but they would still like to be asked to throw a ball or play a game, she says.

Like others, Tabery notes that parents are often more concerned about social norms than their children, and they worry about offending the parent of a child with special needs. “It becomes like the pink elephant in the room that nobody talks about,” she says.

Gaining Acceptance

When Lisette Santiago’s daughter, Adriana, joined a new Girl Scout troop, Santiago explained to the other girls that Adriana, who is 8, had certain behaviors and challenges because of her autism. Sharing that information helped the other girls accept Adriana for who she is.

“All of the girls in the troop have treated Adriana really well,” says Santiago, who lives in Cary. Santiago also eased the way by telling the troop leaders she could stay at meetings any time to help with Adriana. Making friends, family, educators and community leaders more aware of her daughter’s challenges has created a good support network, she says.

Santiago has a younger daughter, Ingrid, 7, who she calls Adriana’s best therapy and medicine. “All of Ingrid’s friends are nice to Adriana. They know that she has her moments and they know when to pay attention to what she is doing and when to ignore it,” says Santiago.

She is trying to teach both of her daughters to strive to be their best and to be flexible and patient with others, just as her mother taught her. “My competition is within myself not with others. I am the one who counts. What everybody else is doing is their own thing,” Santiago explains.

Asked what parents could do to foster acceptance of differences, Santiago responds with a simple answer: “Teach them to be nice,” she says, “and to be patient.”

Tips for Parents and Children

– Be patient.
– Be flexible.
– Keep a sense of humor.
– Don’t avoid children with developmental disabilities.
– Treat children like you want to be treated.
– Use a nice voice and keep hands at your side when approaching a new friend.
– Offer assistance, but accept a “No, thank you” if a child prefers to do it himself.
– Don’t touch any special equipment belonging to a child with special needs without permission.
– Ask questions of parents or children to better understand a child’s abilities and needs.
– If a child doesn’t want to play, don’t take it personally.
– If a child has slow speech or motor skills, make allowances.
– Learn to lose a few games on purpose to make a friend feel better.

Recommended Reading for Children

It’s Okay to Be Different by Todd Parr Birth-2
Whoever You Are (Reading Rainbow Book) by Mem Fox Ages 3-4

Ian’s Walk: A Story About Autism by Laurie Lears Ages 7-9

Who Was Helen Keller? by Gare Thompson Ages 9-12

The Autism Acceptance Book by Ellen Sabin Ages 9-12

Everybody Is Different: A Book for Young People Who Have Brothers or Sisters With Autism by Fiona Bleach Ages 9-12