You walk into a restaurant after church and of course, the wait is 45 minutes. No biggie. The kids aren’t starving so you know waiting won’t be a big deal. You grab the nearest seats in the waiting area and immediately you see it. Your son has stopped mid-sentence and is staring at a family across the waiting area. They have a little girl in a wheelchair. The little girl doesn’t notice him staring, she’s too busy playing with her baby sister. But her mama, oh, of course, Mama notices. She shoots you a quick smile and looks at your son. Shoot, she saw him staring.
What do you do? Tell him to quit staring because it’s impolite? Hand him your phone to quickly divert his attention? Encourage him to go say hello? Gosh no, he’s so blunt and honest. Surely, he’d embarrass you with his first statement. So, what do you decide?
Many times, we are scared to approach anyone who is different. Not because we don’t want to but because we don’t know how. So as a special needs parent, I want to offer a few suggestions from our family to yours.
First things first, remember that your child will react based on how YOU react. You are their parent, after all! If you instinctively push them away and insist that they stop staring, they will forever think that is how they should act in that situation. You have to make the first action a positive one.
Find something relatable for your child. “Oh look at her pretty bow! You have bows like that at home too.” “Look at her pink chair. You love the color pink!” “She’s playing with her baby sister. Do you want to tell her about your baby sister?” That alone will help your child immediately find something that makes them similar instead of different.
Ask your child if they want to say hello. They will not always want to and that’s OK. So in turn, YOU take the initiative to introduce yourselves. “My son was looking at your pretty pink chair. We just had to come to say hi!” If your child sees that you are not scared or nervous, they won’t be either. Ask the parents/caregivers how they communicate if you are not able to see immediately. 9 times out of 10, as soon as you approach, the parent/caregiver has started taking care of the communication barrier, if there is one. We always appreciate you talking TO our child, not around our child. And on that note, speak to them like a “typical” child. You do not have to speak slower or louder or in short direct sentences. If we need to “translate” to our child, we definitely will.
Your child will likely ask – out LOUD – “what happened to her/him?” because, in a child’s world, a wheelchair equals an injury. Please don’t be embarrassed that your child asked this question. Every special needs parent has a way to make it simple for your kiddo. In my world, I simply reply “Well, nothing really happened to her. When she came out of my tummy, her brain was just a little bit different. So that is why she can’t walk or talk. But she can understand what you’re saying just fine so you can talk to her!” That almost always makes it clear for them. The brain is different. That’s it. Got it!
During lunch or when you go home, ask your child again about that moment. Talk about it as a family. Encourage them to point out the differences they noticed. They may even remember a child from school or a child at the grocery store that they saw once that was similar. Explain that different doesn’t mean scary or bad. Encourage them to make those small efforts with ANYONE who is different, not just a special needs child. Encourage them to always include those who may not look like them or speak like them.
Please keep in mind that my advice may be WAY off base for other special needs families. Maybe I should have named this “approaching a special needs child, the non-verbal kiddo in a wheelchair version” or something like that. Not all kids want to be approached. Not all kids do well with crowds and Mom may be protecting them. Honestly, not all special needs parents may care to be approached either. (Not everyone is as front-and-center and in your face as Mykaela and I.) And THAT’S OKAY! Deep down, every mom will appreciate you making the effort to educate your child. That’s really what differences are, after all – just a lack of education.
I say ignorance is NOT always bliss and the only way to make a difference in this world is to not only be the change but to RAISE the change. (WOW, that sounds epic ?)