A few weeks ago, my younger son (non-disabled) had a friend over to play. We’ve known this family for about 6 months. Both older kids have been in my home and have been exposed to my older son numerous times. Anyway, the older sibling came down to walk his sister home. While he was waiting for her to put her shoes and coat on, I saw him watching Kevin.
I don’t remember specifically what Kevin was doing at the time, but he frequently engages in self-stim behavior such as bouncing, head shaking and stuff like that. This boy turned to me and said, “I think I know why Kevin does that. I think he has autism.” How sweet is that? I nodded and told him that yes Kevin does have autism. He proceeded to share a story about another boy in his school.
It reminded me of another situation from last summer. We were at this pizza and bounce house place. We were there on that particular night because I had arranged it as a fundraiser for my son’s school (an all special needs school). So there were many families there from his school. While we were sitting and eating pizza, my 5-year-old said to me, “Mom, I think that there’s a lot of kids here tonight who have autism.”
Kids are naturally curious and ask tons of questions. They also are always learning. You are always teaching them whether you realize it or not.
Doing our part to help others understand disabilities.
I often find kids staring curiously at my son. When I see this, I usually open up the conversation. Sometimes they are quite blunt and will say, “Why is he doing that?” if he is engaging in some stim behaviors. Last week I had Kevin at the grocery store, and he loves to stim on paper. He just loves to flick it or flip it very rapidly on his fingers or against his cheek. I was trying to manage him with one hand and put my grocery items on the belt with the other hand. Of course he saw the row of magazines and started his flicking the pages.
The two kids with the mom behind me in line sort of chuckled and the younger one whispered to the older one. I saw this and said, “Yeah, I don’t know why he does that. I think he likes the sound or the feel of the paper. It’s funny, isn’t it? But he likes to look at magazines that way.” The mom saw me talking to her kids and put together what had happened. I could tell she was mortified by my having to explain my son to them. I wasn’t put off. She then sort of grabbed the one child’s shoulder and said, “come on you two, stand back here where I can watch you” or something like that.
So the message she sent? Don’t talk to or think about or question kids who are different from you, or you’ll get in trouble. Why can’t her kids engage with my child? Just because he’s different? After all, I have seen my typical child notice a shirt on a child or a toy that they are carrying and engage them in conversation about it. Why is Kevin and his magazines off limits? Just because it’s different?
You can engage with disabled people without being rude.
Kevin was a late walker and he was tall for his age as a toddler. He looked older than he was well past the upper age limit for normal walkers. But, I could still usually carry him on one hip and do a small task like pick up a few items at the store in the other. I often carried him rather than drag out a stroller or carrier.
I remember one time an older guy saw this and said in a loud voice, “That boy is much too old to be carried around by his mom, he should be walking.” Sounds like his mom didn’t teach him, did she? In what is really uncharacteristic of me, I ignored him. But obviously, that is a rude way to go about it.
Which is better? That an innocent 6-year-old honestly asks me “Why doesn’t he ever talk?” Or a rude 60-something man making unwarranted comments at the store? Let them ask and learn now, while they are young.
Look, I get it. I never asked for this, to be a teacher and ambassador for kids with disabilities. I understand that as a typical parent, you don’t sit down with your kids and have a formal lesson on kids who are different than them and some of their characteristics. I don’t expect you to do that. But if you don’t do it that way, how do you think they are going to learn? Well, they are going to learn by seeing and doing and observing in their community. I love when other kids who we are connected to via my non-disabled child ask us questions. Let them ask, let them be curious in a safe environment. If they say something that is very rude and offensive, you can gently let them know.
Think of all the seemingly normal things that you feared as a kid because no one took the time to answer your questions honestly but at your level. Like elderly relatives in nursing homes. I often think about another elderly relative who was blind and the man with mental illness who wandered around town playing a banjo. When you learn fear and trepidation around something, it can be tough to overcome. I don’t ever want people to cross the street when they see my son coming, but that is what we did when we saw the guy with the banjo.
Doing our part as members of the disability community.
Hushing your kids and hustling them away from us only creates fear and uncertainty. If the disabled community is going to rant and rave about not being welcomed and understood, then we must also be willing to do our part to help create that understanding. If I get defensive when I’m asked a question and respond with a “M.Y.O.D.B!” then what have I taught? That people who are different from us are rude and angry, so don’t approach them.
If we want to help spread the message that different does not mean less than, we show that our likes are more numerous than our differences. Going back to the two kids who were hushed and shushed by their mom: had they been allowed to continue to converse with me, I could have shared that Kevin loves Gogurt and chocolate milk which were in our cart. I bet those kids like those items too. We are more alike than different.
That’s not to say that this plan always executes smoothly. One time, at the same bounce house and pizza place, I saw some kids interacting with a girl. After watching for a few minutes, I deduced that she probably is on the spectrum and appeared to be struggling with some personal space issues with the other kids. My own child came over and complained to me. I said, “Give her a chance, I think she takes longer to learn things like your brother.”
He yelled, “No! She was talking so she does not have autism!” He thinks that everyone who has autism doesn’t talk and as far as his brother’s school, he’s about 90% correct in that assumption. So we still have a lot to learn and teach.
This might seem strange. But one of my proudest moments is when my typical child said something rude to a girl using a walker at a local park. It was because of what he said. It had nothing to do with the walker! He said something to her (which I could tell was rude). When I questioned him on it, he said, “But she was trying to take my toy!”
He wasn’t being rude to her because she used a walker, he was being rude to her because he saw her as a threat to taking his toy. She was a threat to him equal to that of any other kid. He wasn’t being rude because of walker. Nor was he fawning all over her and letting her have the toy just because she had a walker. He treated her like he would any other kid.
Kids are brutally honest. Your kids will embarrass you with questions and observations. When my grandmother was a child (1910s), the circus came to town on a real train. A circus train, they really existed! I remember her telling me the story of how one year, a black man who was working with the circus came to town on the circus train. She told me how all the kids in the town followed him everywhere because they had never seen any one besides a white person before. I often wonder what the parents’ reaction was back in those days and did the kids just follow him or did the ridicule him too?
But in 100 years, kids have not changed. They are curious. So let’s teach them what we want them to know.
More to help create disability understanding:
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