Shawnee Mission Community Health Update: Teaching your children to embrace kids with special needs

By Amy Milroy

Amy Milroy
Amy Milroy

It seems that my daughters just had their celebratory last day of school a couple of weeks ago instead of months ago! Summer is a wonderful time. My childhood included playing outside all day, looking for creatures in the creek and checking in with my parents only occasionally. Summers for today’s children are a little bit different.

Today’s classrooms are a bit different too. Children with Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, Autism Spectrum Disorders, spina bifida, dwarfism and other special needs are included in our children’s daycares, preschools, elementary, middle and high schools, and even college classrooms. Children with special needs are a part of our community. This, too, is very different from my childhood.

I have a fondness for children with special needs and became a special education teacher because of this. Little did I know all the things these little people would teach me!

Of course, as a parent, I want to teach my children about inclusion and acceptance of all people. What I really want though, is for my children to embrace all people by recognizing their similarities and honoring their differences. How does one even begin to try to accomplish that? Here are some tips, although I am still learning and growing in this area.

  1. Address your child’s questions, comments or concerned looks about the child who looks or sounds different. For young children, keep it simple. Explain to your preschooler that the boy in the wheelchair does not have as strong of muscles as he or she, or that the girl is working hard to learn to talk.
  2. Teach your child about different diagnoses. I understand that some people are hesitant to “put a label” on a child, but in my opinion, giving a name to something that your child views as different or exceptional promotes understanding. When you see a child with special needs at the park, take the opportunity later that day to teach your child about Down syndrome.
  3. Teach your children to be respectful of others. Don’t stare, make inappropriate comments or avoid people with special needs. On the flip side, don’t go overboard by making too many accommodations or comments. Empathy is wonderful, but most of us don’t understand everything the parent or child with special needs experiences on a daily basis.
  4. Use people first language. Do say: child who has cerebral palsy, little girl with Down syndrome, child who is blind. Do not say: Down’s baby, autistic boy, CP kid, handicapped or mentally retarded. The main point is that every child is a child first. Their special need is secondary; it is not the most important aspect of the child and so should not be stated first.
  5. Emphasize similarities and strengths. Try to find and point out common interests. You can say, “Look, she has an American girl doll just like you,” or, “He is wearing a Superman shirt. Isn’t that cool?” Point out the child’s “beautiful blue eyes” or compliment the child on how they kicked the soccer ball.

Parents of children with special needs will tell you that raising their child has taught them more about unconditional love, patience and faith than they could have ever imagined. We could all benefit from their wisdom. Take the time to listen and learn. As parents, if we help our children learn to include, accept and embrace all children, our community will only be better as a result.

This weekly sponsored Community Health Update is brought to you by Shawnee Mission Medical Center.
Amy Milroy is the Director of the Lee Ann Britain Infant Development Center at Shawnee Mission Medical Center. To learn more about the Britain Center, visit BritainCenter.org or email Amy at amy.milroy@shawneemission.org.