At IEL, we have updated our language to reflect our continued understanding of disability. This blog, written prior to that update, uses the term “special needs”, but the content remains relevant.
During the summer, families tend to spend more time out in their communities and traveling to interesting places with their children. You may enjoy time at the swimming pool, visiting a farmers market, or playing in the local park. Parents or caregivers of other children who are playing with your child may be curious about your child’s development or special needs. Do you respond to their questions? How? Why?
You may want to acknowledge their interest and focus on what your child does well by helping the other person notice strengths such as “She loves to play outdoors” or “He tries hard to chase his soccer ball and kick it.” This is a way of welcoming others’ interest in your family.
You can decide how much information you want to share. You can acknowledge the disability or developmental delay at the same time that you focus on abilities. For instance, “Yes my daughter doesn’t say much, but she uses her hands and smiles to tell me what she wants instead of using words.” “My son gets upset when there is too much noise, so we’re going to find a quieter place where he can enjoy being at the pool. Does this ever happen to you?”
Usually other adults or children ask questions because they are curious and/or because they want to interact with you or your child. You can support these social opportunities for your child. Respond to their comments or questions with a smile and an invitation to talk or play. In the summer, parents and caregivers often assume the role of “inclusion specialist” in the community. Think about what you want to share about your child and what invitations you want to accept. You can establish boundaries and share only what you want to share.
You can also plan how your child might share space or play with an unfamiliar child. For instance, I used to tell children on the playground equipment that “Chris likes going down the slide alone. Please wait until he’s off, and then you can take a turn and come down the slide.” I’d thank children for waiting and applaud them when they slid. I would also turn it into a game and use red light, green light rules: “Red light! Chris’s turn to go down. He’s off, now green light—your turn to go down.” And yes, we’d move on to another area if my efforts didn’t work.
On rare occasions someone would say, “What’s wrong with him?” This might be in response to a tantrum. I chose to answer or ignore these questions based on the situation. If it seemed to be an offer to help or understand, I might say, “He has trouble sometimes with managing his emotions, and he’s learning today that he needs to calm himself down. Do you ever feel that way?”
Just as I did with my child, I tried to focus on my strengths as a parent and make the most of opportunities to belong in my community.