Making Friends With Everyone: How to Talk to Your Kids About Special Needs

“Mom, what’s wrong with that girl?” a little voice whispers as I swing my daughter with special needs at the park. “Oh, there’s nothing wrong with her, honey. Now come on, let’s get going. How would you like to go down the slide?” The mother shuffles her daughter away from the swings as I shift my weight from side to side and give my child another push. I don’t speak up, but I should. As a mom to a child with disabilities, I want my daughter to be accepted. I want her to have friends.

In the North State there are more than 10,000 students with disabilities enrolled in the public school system that have disabilities. Thanks to the  Individuals with Disabilities Education Act issued in 1975, most typically developing kids have daily opportunities to interact with individuals who have special needs. They may know someone with a disability at school, church or on their extracurricular soccer team.

It’s great when parents initiate open, informative and loving conversations about special needs with their kids at home. But how many take the time to talk to their kids about disability? How many parents know what to say?

Helpful Tips

“I think it’s hard to know what to say or what not to say. I always feel like I’m going to say the wrong thing, so I say nothing,” admits Julie Long, mom to one daughter.

Having a conversation with children about special needs requires time, openness and encouragement. It doesn’t mean the parent has all the answers. If your child has a classmate with a disability, ask him about it. “How’s John doing in your class? What does he like to do? Do you talk to him much?”

Questions will help you gauge your child’s comfort level with the subject. He may have lots to say, and you’ll realize there isn’t much for you to bring up. But if he gets quiet, it is an opportunity to delve deeper.

The Six “Bs” For Healthy Interactions With Special Needs Youth

Here’s an easy guide to use for a conversation.

Tell your child to:

1. Be smart: His disability is only part of him. Every person is different. Accept your classmate for who he is. Learn about his special needs. You can’t catch the disability. It’s OK to ask questions. Talk to your teacher or to another trusted adult if there is something you don’t understand.

2.  Be patient: Some behaviors may bother you. Your friend is not trying to annoy you. She might need time to answer your questions or help to finish an activity. Kids with special needs sometimes think differently and act differently (as we all do!). If your friend does something that offends you, calmly explain to her what bothered you or talk to an adult.

3.  Be inclusive: Inclusive is a big word. It just means to invite your classmate to join in activities with you. Or offer to teach your friend how to play. Clear directions help everyone understand things better. Try not to be hurt if he says no.

4.  Be sensitive: Join in activities he enjoys. Talk about topics that interest him. Maybe your friend really likes trains. It makes him feel good when you listen and appreciate him. Praise your friend for the things he likes.

5.  Be brave: Children with special needs often are made fun of or bullied. Defend your classmate. If he is teased or bullied, tell an adult. It is never OK to bully another child. Sometimes kids with special needs have a harder time understanding sarcasm and jokes. Don’t tease your friend. Don’t allow others to tease him either.

6. Be yourself: If you are unsure of how to act around your friend, be yourself. Tell him what you like/dislike. Encourage your friend to be her/himself. No two people are the same. Some differences are just more noticeable.

The Takeaway

Broaching the subject of special needs with children will give them confidence and diminish the fear of the unknown at school or at the playground.

Some North State resource centers even offer services that encourage inclusivity amongst all children. At Rowell Family Empowerment, they invites typically developing children to participate in activities like the “Brick Builders” Lego club and the Get SET (social-emotional training) summer program so that they can learn about diverse abilities and celebrate each other.

“We talk openly and freely about autism, down syndrome, deafness and all diversity,” says Executive Director Kat Lowrence. “We believe that each and every human being is unique and has something to offer. Our motto is Everyone Belongs!”

Who knows, maybe someday you’ll even find yourself at the park swinging next to someone with special needs. “Mom, why does that little girl look different than me?” your child may ask. “Remember what we talked about at home about special needs?”

“Let’s say hello. It will be fun to make a new friend.”

Gillian Marchenko is the author of two books: Sun Shine Down, a memoir about her daughter with Down syndrome and Still Life, A Memoir of Living Fully with Depression. Connect with her at
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About North State Parent

North State Parent is a free monthly publication that circulates within five California counties: Butte, Glenn, Shasta, Southern Siskiyou and Tehama. Our pages are filled with family-oriented places to go, services and products geared for women and things to do; a focus on parenting, community, health, education, teens, youth, and much more.

Updated: Oct 10, 2017 @ 11:29 am