I will always remember the part in the show Parenthood where the young boy with aspergers hears his mother say that he had aspergers. The scene was shocking, everyone was surprised…and then the young boy started to learn everything that he could about aspergers and it helped him to understand. The memory sticks out in my mind because I think it is important for parents to understand that learning is the solution to many issues surrounding disabilities and differences of all kinds.
Talk to children About Differences
Young children begin to understand the world by figuring out what is alike and what is different. Matching games, shapes, colors, learning about all of these things begins with identifying what is alike and what is different and then working to figure out the how and why. Teaching children about disabilities and other differences works in a similar way. Children will notice when other children are different, so talking to them about the whys and hows will help them to understand and may help them to be more comfortable about people that look differently than them.
Watch Your Own Behavior
Children can sense discomfort and can tell when you walk faster or avoid situations. If you act like this when you see someone in a wheelchair or that has an obvious physical or cognitive disability, they will pick up on it. No amount of talking about how you “should” act will erase the child’s memory of seeing how you do act. Be conscious of what you say and do, because they will be more likely to model that behavior.
Encourage Compassion, but Also Encourage Emotional Expression
Children often want to talk about the child in school that is different. When they bring the subject up, be open to the conversation, but encourage compassion. Children may be startled or uncomfortable when they see someone with a physical deformity or cognitive disability if they do not have one, or may be worried if they do and everyone else doesn’t. Allow them to express their feelings, rather than making them feel ashamed. After they have expressed how they feel, talk to them about what caused the disability or difference and try to help them understand other children’s point of view.