Parents and Teachers

How To Talk About Special Needs and Disabilities With Kids of All Ages

It’s entirely normal for children to be curious about people with disabilities or special needs (in fact, many adults are, too!). The earlier you begin having these conversations with your child, the more normalized it will become for them as they get older. With open discussions comes sensitivity and acceptance for family, friends, peers, and strangers.

If you’re unsure how and when to start the conversation about disabilities with your child, you’re not alone. But I promise, even the youngest kiddos can understand the right words. This guide provides tips for talking to kids of all ages about people with disabilities to instill understanding and acceptance.

Tips for Talking to Kids About Special Needs and Disabilities

  • Normalize Conversations
  • Answer Questions (and Find Answers If You Aren’t Sure)
  • Prioritize Kindness 
  • Don’t Focus on Differences
  • Set Rules for Interactions
  • Teach Kids of Any Age About Special Needs and Disabilities

Normalize Conversations 

The first conversation you have with your child about disabilities and special needs might feel uneasy for both of you. That’s typically because it’s a new subject, and you probably don’t know the best way to approach it. However, the more you talk with your kiddo about it, the easier it will become for both of you. In other words, normalize it.

That doesn’t necessarily mean you need to make a point of talking about disabilities with each other every day. Instead, find ways to make disabilities a more regular part of your life, from talking about them to advocating for them.

One way to do that is by letting your child know that disabilities aren’t a bad thing. For instance, explain that people with disabilities and special needs simply have their own ways of doing things, like a person with hearing loss who uses sign language instead of spoken language. Another example is a person who uses a wheelchair to maneuver through their home and school rather than their legs.

People with disabilities have all kinds of other incredible abilities, something that’s crucial to point out to children. Doing so helps them see that people with disabilities do enjoy a lot of the same things they do, even though sometimes it may look different.

As your child grows and understands more, they’ll be able to participate in more mature conversations about disabilities. Keep the lines of communication open so that your youngster feels comfortable coming to you when they have a question or want to talk.

Answer Questions (and Find Answers If You Aren’t Sure)

With a better understanding of disabilities and special needs will come more questions. Questions can sometimes catch you off guard, especially from younger kids who are extremely curious and just want to understand. Try to avoid brushing them off, even if the question seems offensive. Remember that this is simply a child’s way of learning and understanding, and it makes for a perfect teaching moment.

As an example, questions can transition into teaching your kiddo about respectful wording. If your child asks, “Why can’t she walk?”, you might say something simple like, “She uses a walker because it helps her move from place to place.” There’s no need to dig into the specifics or shy away from the question.

Sometimes, your child might ask questions that you don’t know the answers to — and that’s 100% okay. You’re not going to know the answer to every question about every disability, but being open to learning the answers to your child’s questions is necessary.

When you don’t know the answer, simply say, “I don’t know.” Then, depending on the question, think of a way to find the answer. A trip to the library or an internet search together could lead to a helpful explanation. Or, if you just need a few more minutes to think of how to explain your answer, tell your child that you’ll come back to that question when you’ve thought about it a little more.

Prioritize Kindness 

Young kids might do or say something offensive to a person with a disability or special needs without realizing it. Again, these are excellent teaching moments to swoop in and help them understand why their actions or words could be harmful and how they could’ve handled the situation differently.

What this does is teach compassion, kindness, and sensitivity to others. With more practice, these characteristics will become second nature to your child regarding interactions with people with disabilities.

The best thing you can do to instill these characteristics is to model them. As one of the most important people in your child’s life, your kiddo looks to you to understand what words and behaviors are appropriate. If you stare at a person with a disability in a store, your child might begin to mimic that behavior. Be mindful of how you respond to and interact with others and your child will follow suit.

Also, make no room for harmful behavior. Have set consequences in place for intentional behavior that could upset or offend someone with a disability. When it’s intentional, you should address it immediately, if possible. 

Of course, the best way to stop bullying is to prevent it. Raise youngsters in compassionate environments and teach them ways to help others who might need it. The rest should fall into place. 

Also, take advantage of other community resources that can support your child’s learning. Libraries sometimes host programs for kids about disabilities, bullying, and similar subjects. Your child’s school might also have upcoming assemblies about these issues. If not, make a call to the principal to suggest it.

Don’t Focus on Differences

Kids can first notice that others are different from them at an early age as they hit social-emotional developmental milestones. Around six months, babies begin to look at themselves in the mirror, and by 18 months, they begin to show interest in other children. These milestones indicate self-awareness and social growth, both of which can lead to an ability to spot differences.

But with this sense of awareness comes a crucial responsibility for parents and caregivers to prevent little ones from focusing on differences. Instead, help them see the similarities that exist between themselves and other children, including those with disabilities.

Example: “He was born with Down syndrome and he’s a kid just like you. We are all born different from one another. We look different, act different, and have different interests. I bet he loves being a kid, playing, and seeing friends just like you.”

Doing this will help your youngster understand that the differences they see aren’t anything to be ashamed or scared of. Plus, they’ll find common ground to connect with others as they learn to default to finding similarities rather than focusing on differences when they meet someone.

Set Rules for Interactions

Once kids have a basic understanding of what disabilities are, they still need to learn how to interact with people with disabilities respectfully. 

A common struggle for kids is learning how to ask questions properly. A question worded one way can sound disrespectful, even if it’s not intended to be. 

Work with your child on asking questions. Talk about appropriate questions to ask. A good rule of thumb to teach is that if they want to ask someone a question to learn more about the person, that question gets a green light. 

Still, thinking about the question before they say it is always helpful. When your child does ask a question that could sound unintentionally disrespectful, help them reword it by offering an alternative.

It’s also important to remember that although many people with disabilities welcome questions as a way to educate people about their disability, others find them uncomfortable. Teaching your child to ask, “Is it okay if I ask you something?” is a good idea.

Similarly, a child might have the right intention of helping someone with a disability when they see a need, but not everyone wants help. For example, they might try to help push a person in a wheelchair through a narrow doorway or read a sign to a person running their finger over Braille wording. 

While these are noble acts to your child, they could make a person feel less-than, especially if that person thrives on independence. Teach your child to ask, “Is it okay if I help you?” before acting, just to make sure they aren’t overstepping the person’s boundaries.

Teach Kids of Any Age About Special Needs and Disabilities

Every child will handle conversations about disabilities differently, and you know what will work for your child best. The tips above can lay the groundwork while you form the rest of the building blocks in the best way for your youngster to understand.

As your child grows and enters elementary and then secondary schools, they will experience a wealth of diversity and wonderful differences that each child and adult brings. I’d like to recommend this article on inclusion and why it is so crucial moving forward.

I’d love to hear some of your tips for talking to kids about special needs and disabilities. What has worked for you so far? Send me an email or share your ideas in the comments to help other families who are working on using inclusive language and actions with their kiddos.

About the author

Emily Cummings

I am a mom of two crazy, amazing, independent, little feminists. They bring so much light to my life and a lot less sleep. Since becoming a mother and increasingly in the last year, I have witnessed parents struggling to connect with their child's special education team with no success. I have become more aware of the gaps in our public school system and how parents may benefit from empowerment and advocacy tools.

My work experiences range from a juvenile detention center to an autism specialist in the Issaquah School District and a special education teacher in a self-contained program in the Lake Washington School District. My master's in teaching focused on special education and behavioral disorders from Seattle Pacific University. I completed my BCBA coursework from Montana State University.

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