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Ways to Reach Out To—and Support—a Special Needs Family

Special Needs Family NashvilleMomsBlog

“Well, what CAN we say then?”

In response to a post I wrote a couple of months back (if you missed it, you can find it here), I received this comment several times. People want to be supportive, strike up a conversation, or get to know you better, and they—unknowingly—choose words that sting a little. I have heard from others that they see many posts that advise on what NOT to say, but few that explain what we actually want to hear. This makes me a little sad as I don’t want to further ostracize us by being perceived as unapproachable! I truly love people and want others to feel comfortable talking to my daughter and me.

I promise we won't bite!

I promise we won’t bite!

So, here are a few simple tips for approaching and supporting children with special needs and their loved ones:

  • The most important thing you can remember is that we are more alike than different. Keep in mind that the child with disabilities that you are approaching simply deserves the respect and dignity you’d give any typical human. Opening with “What’s wrong with you/him/her?” is never going to be well-received. You would never walk up to a stranger and ask them why they’re overweight or what they were thinking with their haircut choice, would you? Instead of leading with your curiosity, “Hi!” or “How are you?” would be much better.
  • Always, always always speak to the child—regardless of whether it seems to you that they are capable of understanding. Presuming competence is the ultimate rule when it comes to special needs children. It’s never ok to talk to their parents about them as if they’re not there. As with any kid, you cannot go wrong with a compliment on their cool shoes, rockin wheels, nice outfit, cute glasses, etc.
  • If you’ve struck up a conversation and feel it’s going well, you can ask the adult if they mind your asking about their child. Most parents in the special needs community are pretty open to sharing, but some of us are a bit more private. This inquiry gives those folks the opportunity to politely decline. If we choose to open up to you, please never make “the sad face” or tell us you’re sorry. This feels like pity and makes things incredibly awkward for all involved. If you want to convey compassion or admiration, a well-placed compliment such as, “Well, she seems like an awesome kid!” or “It sounds like you’re a great mom to him!” would be a terrific way to do that.
  • The exception to all of this is the natural curiosity of your own children. They do not yet understand complex social etiquette and are learning about the world through their questions. Please don’t shush them or shuffle them away from us for saying something “rude.” This reinforces the idea of disability as “other” and taboo. Bring them over and introduce them to my child while pointing out something they have in common!

Lastly, to my fellow parents and loved ones of someone with special needs—I truly believe that, mostly, people want to find meaningful ways to connect, and they just don’t always know what to say. I think responding in a way that makes people feel defensive or ashamed makes them less likely to want to connect in our community and turns away potential allies and advocates. We want a better, more understanding world for our kids, awareness for their condition, and disability acceptance. We can’t make that happen by shaming people for their choice of words. I’d like to encourage all of us to take the opportunity to educate people in the kindest way possible. To do that, I think we have to let our defenses down a bit and see the heart behind the words. Sure—there are some nosy jerks in the world, but I do believe that most people have good intentions and would love nothing more than to seek friendship.

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4 Responses to Ways to Reach Out To—and Support—a Special Needs Family

  1. misty May 14, 2015 at 9:00 am #

    Lauren, Thank you for writing this! I am a mom of 3 who through such blessing have no defining illness or disability other than learning ( which faces its own challenges ) but mostly just you’re ” run of the mill” healthy kids. However, Im a talker and I think quite compassionate to others and how I can help. I tend to find my self attracted to the mom a lil intimidated at park, or kiddo with a lil something special goin on. My kids are very much the same, they tend to help those smaller and weaker always first. It has joyed me sooooo much to see this quality bloom in them and it really stunts it, when they are treated like invaders or defensively when approaching someones child with needs. they always have good intention but of course are curious and we have taught them honesty will get you farther so they expect it back and their curiosity is only your opportunity for honesty so tell them, educate them, thank them for asking :)) As for me, I appreciate your tips, bc it is hard to know what to say but always the intention is to strike up conversation and get into the big stuff when/ if you’re ready! I don’t wanna tell you about my UTI, so you don’t need to feel obligated to tell me about any of your ails, unless you just need to vent today :)) Peace, love and momminess to all, because we are all just moms afterall to all these different glorious little humans! Pura Vida

    • Lauren Cootes May 14, 2015 at 9:22 am #

      Thanks Misty! Keep being the open-hearted, friendly person you are. The world needs more of that!

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