How to talk to your kids about differences and disabilities

WATCH: Global News explores how parents can explain special needs to young children. Laurel Gregory has some suggestions and tips from experts and families.

“Maybe we should play with her next time.”

The casual remark, made in a swimming pool on Thanksgiving, stood out for Christine L’Abbé. A mother was gently encouraging her sons to play with L’Abbé’s five-year-old daughter Gabi.

“Just kind of telling the kids: Let’s include her, let’s play with her, let’s speak with her. It was that inclusiveness that I found nice.”

Gabi has Atypical rett syndrome, a condition that makes her a little different from typically developing children.

“She is on the more severe side so she has quite a few challenges. She’s in a wheelchair, non-verbal and she can’t really use her arms very much. It’s part of the syndrome,” L’Abbé said.

Children sometimes stare at Gabi but L’Abbé uses it as an opportunity to educate.

“They are not aware. They’re just staring because they aren’t sure, they are curious, they want to ask questions,” she said.

“If anything, I actually feel like kids with special needs want to be seen and want to be noticed, so they would appreciate if a child came and asked them questions.”

So what can parents do to help their children see beyond differences?

Say Hello & Ask Questions

Wendy McDonald, Chief Operating Officer for Inclusion Alberta, says parents should encourage curiosity and conversation.

“My message would be: It’s OK to ask questions. That’s what we want. But if it’s a question that you wouldn’t ask an able-bodied person, then don’t ask it of somebody with a disability.”

McDonald says her son has a visual impairment and needed to wear glasses from the age of one. She found it frustrating and hurtful when people would ask why he was wearing glasses because he wore them for the same reason anyone else wears them.

McDonald says when a conversation happens between a typical child and a child with special needs, there’s a purity to it.

“Kids are curious and ask questions because they are curious. There isn’t a bias or prejudice in their questions.”

As a result, the topic may start with “the cool things about a wheelchair” and then shift to shared interests. McDonald says when children learn about their similarities, the disability disappears.

L’Abbé says by chatting with a child with special needs or their parent, children can also learn about that child’s special abilities. Gabi, for example, has remarkable intuition.

“Automatically, a child sees another child who has difficulty walking and they could easily assume that child has difficulties or whatever else. So I think it’s important for them to realize that, no, a lot of these kids are actually quite gifted and it’s good to explore that.”

READ MORE: Down syndrome didn’t stop this man from growing a multimillion-dollar sock company with his dad

Acknowledge Differences & Emphasize Similarities

“When you see a child looking at someone who is different in some way, that’s a cue to you as a parent or a teacher,” according to Jillian Roberts, a clinical child psychologist, special ed teacher and the author of What makes us Unique? Our First Talk About Diversity

She advises parents to get down to their child’s level, look them in the eye and explain all of the differences around them.

“The world is made of all sorts of people: different backgrounds, different hair colours, skin colours, eye colours and that it’s OK to be different. That doesn’t make that other person less than or more than. It’s just a difference.”

Roberts added, “But there’s a lot of ways that everybody is alike. Everybody wants to be treated kindly. Everybody wants people to be friendly. And we can teach kids how to be gentle and loving in situations that might also be uncomfortable for them.”

READ MORE: How to address sibling rivalries involving special needs kids

Model it

McDonald says parents have a huge role in modelling how to be inclusive. For example, if your child goes to school with a student with special needs, have they thought of inviting them over?

Roberts says parents can lead by example out in public too.

“I think the most important thing is for children to see every member of our society as being important and valued and included and it’s OK to say hello, it’s OK to ask how their day is, and we can model that for our kids. We can take the lead in asking how their day is.”

© 2019 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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