Talking to children about disabilities and special needs need not be difficult or painful. Though we might think that little kids won’t understand why a sibling or a classmate with special needs is different from them, we should trust their ability to understand and their innate compassion for others.
Siblings of kids with special needs may have their own issues too, given that their brother or sister will definitely get more of their parents’ attention. Different emotions will come into play. A typically developing child might be jealous of his sibling, or perhaps he might be worried about the future; he might even feel embarrassed.
Grace Reyes, owner and director of Bridges Foundation Inc., says that even before parents start to think about what to say about their special needs child, they should first work on truly accepting their child’s condition or diagnosis. She says that accepting that “the dream child is gone” is difficult because all the hopes and dreams of parents for their child are “cut short” with a diagnosis. Whether one’s child suffers from a physical or a developmental disability, the anguish and fears are the same.
Bridges Foundation is the oldest special education (SPED) school in the country. It was established in 1992. Having worked with countless children with special needs, Reyes believes that an explanation in the form of a formal family meeting is not what young children really need.
She says that the way parents show their acceptance and support of the special needs family member is the one that children will follow. A child will read your emotions and actions and will follow your lead. In fact, Reyes has observed that compassionate children come from compassionate families.
A home with a special needs child offers the typically developing children the opportunity to be kind, empathetic, and accepting of differences between people. This is evident in the family of Jen Bellosillo, a homeschooling mother of three. Her son was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD or autism) at age two and has enjoyed a warm and supportive family environment.
Similar to Reyes, Jen and her husband also did not just tell their daughter about her brother. Instead, they fostered a close sibling bond, used stories to explain and discuss about their son’s special needs, and employed music and art as tools to reach their younger child’s heart.
Here are other things you can do:
1. Make an effort for siblings to play together One of the things that Jen and her husband intentionally decided on was to actively encourage their children to play together. They made their daughter join her older brother at the start of his therapy sessions for a few minutes of play. This, she says, “helped our daughter understand her brother’s condition without us explaining it yet.”
Family game nights are also an important part of family life. Board games are always a hit for families with multi-aged kids. Jen and her husband facilitate their kids’ playtime to ensure the inclusion of their son with ASD.
2. Use stories to talk about a sibling’s or a classmate’s special needs Jen used the story of Creation to help explain their son’s condition to their younger daughter. Through the story, they made her understand that “each child created by God is unique and special.” Through various picture books and Bible stories, they were able to discuss how siblings should love and look after each other.
The program of Bridges includes children with neurological impairment, autism, or Down Syndrome in their mainstream classes, either fully or partially. With this mix, and because they use a literature-based curriculum, they read stories and talk about people with disabilities and special needs. As a result, the school’s playground is peaceful and inspiring, with little kids helping their impaired classmates without any prodding.
3. Harness the power of art and music Being a former preschool teacher, Jen believes that like play, music and art play a big part when answering difficult questions or talking about feelings. She says, “We can create different scenarios while playing, choose an appropriate song, or paint on paper to draw out children’s emotions.”
Siblings of those with special needs need their feelings to be heard. Giving them the opportunity to do so through stories, art, and music can be healing and empowering for them.
Children often observe their parents to get cues on what is happening around them and on how to behave in situations. More than talking to them and preaching about what they should or should not do, parents must first start with themselves.
Accepting a child’s disability is the first and important step. It will dictate how a typically developing child perceives people with special needs – may it be his sibling, classmate, or just a random stranger.