Five Things to Remember When Dealing with a Special Needs Child
Updated: Jun 13, 2019
I believe I may have been the proudest parent in the building.
My youngest daughter had done it. At fourteen she was graduating from middle school and moving on to high school. Her name was the first one called and she pranced up to the front of the gymnasium turned auditorium to receive her promotion certificate.
A few days later, my daughter came home from school with her brand new yearbook in hand. Again with an overwhelming sense of pride I flipped through the pages of the yearbook, hoping to catch a glimpse of some of the things my daughter had been doing over the past year.
I didn’t find a single picture of my daughter until I got to the back section where all of the school pictures were located. I noticed that all of the pictures had a quote underneath that I assumed came from the student. I searched for my daughter’s picture and saw the quote that was under her name:
“Hallelujah, Praise the Lort.”
I grimaced in a mixture of anger and sadness.
My daughter is a special needs child born with a congenital heart defect and Down Syndrome. Although she is fourteen years old physically, her mind functions closer to the level of a five or six year old. She has endured challenge after challenge in her life, and through it all she has maintained her smile and has shown a level of fortitude and determination that many people twice her age lack.
Yet despite all that, she is now forever immortalized in her yearbook as a simpleton who is unable to even properly say the word “Lord”.
Look, I get it. I understand that the school is not in the business of putting down their students and meant no harm with the quote. I even understand that they probably heard her say the line before, as she loves Tyler Perry’s movies and the line is commonly uttered by his most popular character. But at the same time I have to question the school’s sensitivity on the subject.
If there was a blind child attending the school, would they dare to put a caption under his picture that said “It’s dark in here”? If a child suffered from an irregular heartbeat, would her quote read, “My heart is racing?”
Of course not, because the lines would not be seen as funny, but would instead be seen as making light of the disability of a child.
This is the exact same way I viewed the quote that was under my daughter’s picture. Again, I understand that it was meant to be a joke, but all I saw was a cold reminder that my daughter has a lower mental capacity than most of her peers.
So needless to say, I am not laughing.
Unfortunately, the school’s error in judgment is not an anomaly. As a parent of two special needs children, I have noticed several areas that could use a bit of improvement when it comes to dealing with children who have special needs.
While this is certainly not a comprehensive list, it is a list of the immediate issues that we all should take into account when dealing with children who have special needs.
1. Show sensitivity. The disability of one person should not be a source of ridicule for another, particularly when it comes to children.
2. Practice patience. Not only do many children with disabilities have problems that limit their physical capabilities, but there are often mental limitations as well. As such, it may be harder for them to appropriately express themselves or adapt to social norms. This may lead to them exhibiting behaviors that can be trying to others such as screaming in public or randomly hugging people (both of my children have exhibited these behaviors). These children require patient redirection as opposed to frustrated screaming from their peers and caregivers, which I have witnessed all too often in these cases.
3. Allow them to express their independence. All children need room to grow and discover their independence, and children with special needs are no different. However, when we see a disabled child, our first inclination is to try to help them with whatever it is they are doing. With my children, I do not automatically rush to their aid even when they are struggling to complete a task. If you spring to the aid of your child whenever they face an obstacle they will never learn to overcome that obstacle. Children with special needs are no different, and should be allowed the space to overcome challenges themselves. In my household, my children must at least attempt difficult tasks themselves before asking for help. It this way they learn to rely on their own strength, and it always feels great when my daughter gives me a big smile and says, “I did it!”
4. Understand that they may do things differently in order to reach the same goal. My youngest child is autistic and has his own distinct ways of doing things that don’t always make sense to me. Sometimes he’ll take the longest way possible to get to where he wants to go. Or he’ll tear off a piece of tissue paper before he uses the potty. I don’t stop him or insist that he do things my way because he has developed these behaviors as part of his routine, and honestly seeing him getting the job done is all that matters to me in the long run.
5. When in doubt, defer to the parent or guardian. If you take nothing else away, please hold onto this. If the school had done this, if they had simply sent a note home asking if the quote was okay for them to use, there would have been no issue. Parents are the biggest advocates for their children, and know them better than anyone else. We are also the ones who are most sensitive to our children’s needs and desires, even when they don’t have the ability to express those desires.
Again, the tips listed above are in no way definitive, but are merely my observations of what we can do to avoid unnecessary stumbles when dealing with children who have special needs. If there’s anything you’d like to add to the list, or anything you’d like to share, please feel free to leave a comment.
In the meantime, let’s all work together to make the world just a little bit brighter.