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Disabilities through a child's eyes

We tell children "Everyone's the same," but they know better. And there's no shame in being different.

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.

Aidan’s differences are a little subtle to young children. He has all his limbs, he walks and talks (though not clearly), and he plays just like them. When we go to the playground, I can sense as other kids become aware of Aidan. They stop what they’re doing and watch him for a minute or two. They’re scoping him out, trying to figure  out “What’s different here?”

Some of them walk up to him and ask him to play; they’re attracted to him, or they want to get a closer look. In any case, they are not afraid. Many bypass him and come straight to me: “How old is he?” is a typical first question. Usually I gently remind them that Aidan is standing right next to me and that they should ask him. The kids are often surprised (but pleased) when they ask and Aidan tells them how old he is.

Later on, if the child still is curious about Aidan, I give a brief explanation: “He has Down syndrome, which means it will take him longer to walk and talk, and sometimes it’s harder for him. But he will do these things. People are born with Down syndrome — you can’t catch it.” Usually that’s all they need to hear, and they’re perfectly satisfied.

At school, where he has been in a regular classroom since kindergarten, Aidan’s classmates have come to know him as just a boy, no longer “the boy with Down syndrome.” They look beyond his differences to see what we see: a kid who loves reading Harry Potter, telling jokes, shooting hoops, playing the guitar, and bugging his big brother.

Helping your child understand difference

Chances are your kid has a classmate with a disability, so now is a good time to talk about differences in people:

  • Explain differences in general — point out how people have different hair color, height, accents, etc.
  • Talk about your kid's classmates and their differences and similarities.
  • Be matter-of-fact when discussing people with disabilities. If you’re uncomfortable, your child will sense it. If there is a classmate with a specific disability, do research on it together.
  • Focus on what that child can do rather than the disability.
  • Let your child know that it’s OK to ask questions about differences and that you are always available to talk.
  • Think about the words you use when referring to people with differences — avoid ones with negative connotations, such as “crippled” or “retarded,” and try to use people-first language ("child with Down syndrome" instead of "Down syndrome child," for example). If you’re not sure of the best words to use, don’t be afraid to ask!

Valle Dwight is a reporter, writer, and mother of two school-aged boys. She has written for many magazines, including FamilyFun, Wondertime, and Working Mother.

Comments from readers

"It all boils down to ignorance and lack of awareness. Recently, my kids and I saw a movie "The boy who could fly". For my kids, it was an eye-opener. They didn't know too much about autism or any other learning disability including dyslexia. As a parent, it is our duty to create that awareness, dispell myths and educate them so they do not discriminate against anyone or stigmatize any condition. Like they say, knowledge is power. "
"Very good article. My daughter is also a special need child and is 10 years old. I explain to her that we are all different and everyone does things their own way. She feels that other kids are smarter than her. I told her that she is smart and does this how she knows. Thanks for this article."
"Your article gives out great info. that can be useful and aplied to our children when found in the same situation. I have been open with my children at a very early age and taught them to always accept anyone whom seems different to them. My boys are now 14 & 15yrs at times they have shared this info with friends whom haven't been taught we are all different in our own ways and now teach our 7yr old daughter too. I believe It is very important to learn this at an early age. "
"Super article. My 7year old son also has down syndrome and we have had similiar playground experiences. Thanks for sharing. kjh "
"Any chance you could tackle children with color deficiencies in the future? I can't find any help on this issue and 1 out of 12 boys suffer from this. Are there attorney's who specialize in this? I can't get any cooperation from my child's school. Any help would be greatly appreciated. Thanks"
"I am a mom of a 5yr old with Down Syndrome and a typical 9yr old. Wonderful article! Thank you! I signed up for the Great Schools newsletter for articles like this and for information on mainstreaming special needs children. My 5yr old will be starting kindergarten in public schools next year and while for now he will be in a contained classroom my hope for him is to be mainstreamed and to be accepted by his peers for who he is."
"This is a very nice article. Thanks for sharing a common sense mom's viewpoint and advice. All children are blessed and as parents we can help ours appreciate others and embrace diversity. "
"Very well written article. Excellent practical tips to develop sensitivity among other children. I really liked it!"
"This was a great article. Very discriptive, no sugar coating, just right to the point. It was like I was on the playground with you. Thank you for your insight. "
"I always' enjoy Ms Dwight's stories. They're always informative, and spoken in a way whichreaches people."
"Excellent article! I agree wholeheartedly! We've also found through our experience that if kids get an honest, relaxed answer to their questions, they can accept anyone - and what every kid longs for is to be accepted and loved for who they are. Then it's a double blessing - to the 'different' child to feel like he/she is part of the group, class, playtime, etc. but also to the 'normal' kids for embracing & loving & accepting"
"As the mother of three Autistic children I can feel that kids are much nicer and openminded now than they were when I was a kid. I'm glad that the schools are including special needs children in the mainstream. For my disabled children it's important because they are students too and have the right to be included and a need to be accepted. But for my typical child as well, because the world is a better place when we can embrace all kinds of differnces~ abilities, apearances, race, culture and orientation. "