By Valle Dwight
I watched with a huge grin as my 2-year-old son painstakingly negotiated the three steps to get to the top of the play structure at our local playground. Aidan wobbled, hesitated, and looked back at me for reassurance. When he got to the top, he sat with a plop, lifted his arms in victory, threw back his head, and cheered.
A little boy standing nearby looked at his mother and said, “What’s wrong with that kid?”
Where I saw only joy and triumph, the boy saw something else entirely — a 2-year-old who couldn’t walk, whose tongue stuck out, who struggled to climb three small steps, and who talked funny.
When Aidan was born with Down syndrome, we entered a whole new world — one that we knew nothing about and, frankly, hadn’t given much thought to. It’s the world of difference.
In our eyes, Aidan, now age 13, is just an adorable redheaded dynamo — a funny jumble of laughter, recklessness, drama, and courage. But to strangers, especially the children he runs up to on the playground, he’s a boy who doesn’t quite fit in with their idea of “normal.”
Kids are perceptive that way. Though we have this ideal vision that, to kids, “everyone is the same,” it’s actually not true. Even very young children can pick out differences faster than many adults, and sometimes they get hyper-focused on those differences.
If I see someone with a hearing aid, it doesn’t register as all that strange to me, because over the course of my lifetime I’ve seen many people with hearing aids. If a child sees someone with a strange-looking thing in their ear, it may become all he sees.
“It’s normal to notice differences,” says Nancy Miller, an assistant clinical professor at UCLA's department of psychiatry and biobehavioral science. Our brains are wired to detect them, and we have no control over that. What we can control, and what we can help our children with, is how we respond to those differences.
Kids have one of several reactions to what they see, says Miller, who is coauthor of Everybody’s Different, which explores how people perceive and respond to those with disabilities. They may be frightened, it might worry them (“Can I catch it?”), or they may be just plain curious.
Some parents find it difficult to talk about disabilities because they’re not all that familiar with them. And a parent's discomfort can make the situation worse. If a child sees a person using a walker and calls it out to his mother, she may say, “Don’t look” or “Don’t talk about it,” thinking it’s the polite thing to do but sending the message that using a walker is bad or shameful.
So what to do when your child spots someone different? “If your child brings it up in public, make it neutral,” says Miller. “Let them know it’s not wrong, just different.”
If you know your child will be seeing people with differences, she suggests, talk about it beforehand. For example, if you’re headed to visit your great-aunt at a nursing home, discuss what your child will see there — explain what walkers, wheelchairs, and oxygen tanks are used for.
“It’s a great teaching moment,” Miller says, and it makes children comfortable with what they encounter.
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