How to explain special needs to a child

Reading time: 9 min

The White Paper 6 of 2001 brought with it a new awareness of difference and diversity. Instead of having separate schools or classrooms for learners with a disability, schools were encouraged to cater to these learners within the mainstream school environment.

This, therefore, brought about a need for awareness and understanding of disability, especially for children who had never before been exposed to learners and peers who were differently abled to them. Although we have come a long way as a society, there is still much need for explanation, understanding and tolerance of differences, and it’s sometimes necessary to teach our children in this regard.

Teaching children about disabilities

People with disabilities are sometimes instead referred to as those who are differently abled. When teaching our children about those with disabilities, this can be a useful ‘in’ as it allows our children to see and learn that those who suffer from certain disabilities are very capable and able in other areas.

Instead of focusing on a deficiency – something a person lacks – it is helpful to look at how their capabilities differ to others.

The way you teach your child about differently abled people will depend on their age and how much they’re able to understand. Much of this comes down to teaching empathy (which is discussed further down) in terms of how your child will think about others. Toddlers have been known to see a small child with a bandage or plaster, and to say something like ‘ouch’ or ‘sore’ – they can pick up on somebody struggling, so they’ll pick up on children who are struggling in other ways, and can reflect their feelings if they have the capacity for empathy.

Small children will be able to use their words more, and explanations can be given (age appropriately) about why their peer or another small child is different, or an explanation as to why they may behave in a certain way.

It may be helpful to educate your child on the specific types of special needs that their friends or classmates present with. It is helpful for your child (and their friend), to know that their friend with ADHD does not mean to constantly kick the desk and distract them while they are trying to do his work, or that their autistic friend may not want to hug them when they get to school as their other friends might.

Educating your child helps them to understand certain behaviours and to be more accepting or tolerant of others. While your child may or may not have special needs of their own, find something to compare it to. For example, saying to your child: “You know how you find Maths really challenging sometimes? Well, for Lucy reading and spelling are really difficult and she needs some extra help in those areas.” Or, “You know how it bothers you when the TV is too loud? Well, for Thoko, sometimes things feel that loud for him all the time, which is why he covers his ears a lot.”

This gives your child a point of comparison and understanding, but also helps them to see that everybody has something that may be slightly challenging that somebody else may find easier to handle or achieve.  Allow your child to ask questions too, and try to answer them best you can.

As a parent of a child with special needs, speak to your child’s teacher and perhaps encourage them to talk to the class so there is an understanding of your child, rather than a judgment. This type of education can take place in the classroom too, where other learners can be informed about their classmates’ challenges, and disabilities in general, so as to be more aware and understanding.

Special needs at school

At school, children need to be taught to be empathic and to encouraged to learn from their peers. They need to be encouraged to advocate for those who are differently abled, and to stand up for them where necessary.

A remedial or special needs environment is often helpful in that it, like all schools, has an ethos of acceptance and care, but on a greater level due to the number of learners presenting with challenges and barriers to learning. It is thought that this is because at such a school there is an understanding that everybody has ‘something’ for which they need support.

Some children struggle academically, some emotionally and others behaviourally. There is a greater sense of camaraderie among children at these schools as a result. This is not to say that learners with special or remedial needs should only be placed among learners who also have special needs.

We need to encourage all children to acknowledge that needing support does not equal discrimination, and that children with special needs may be different in certain ways, but that there will be many similarities too. In all instances, and in all schools, bullying needs to be managed and policies put in place to avoid discrimination in any form – not just due to difference in abilities.

It is especially helpful for teachers of learners with special needs to be specifically trained in this regard so that they are aware of how to manage classrooms with a variety of barriers, and how to handle certain situations.

However, it is also important for teachers of learners with special needs to have skills that they cannot be trained in – empathy, patience, no judgement, caring, kindness and an ability to adjust rules and work with new scenarios and situations daily.

Children with special educational or physical needs deserve to be fully included and accepted into their school environment and it takes a special kind of teacher to ensure that this happens and that special needs learners are treated fairly.

Respecting differences and acknowledging sameness

In general, it is important that we teach our children respect and how to be empathic towards others. Having respect and empathy toward others in general, will make respecting and empathising with learners who are different or who have special educational needs easier.

“By making children aware of disabilities, they in turn can create awareness for others and advocate for those with disabilities when they need it.”

In their book, The Whole Brain Child, Daniel Segal and Tina Payne Bryson, mention that the more your child ‘practises’ thinking about others, the more “capable he will be of having compassion” (Segal & Payne Bryson, 2012, p.55). They also mention that empathy is an important function for children and a requirement for successful interpersonal relationships. We need to encourage respectful talk in our homes, and encourage our children to talk respectfully about others.

Children and adults alike can often feel uncomfortable when seeing somebody who is ‘different’ – whether it be a person in a wheelchair, somebody on crutches, or a little person. What so often happens is that we look away when we see somebody in a wheelchair approaching, leaving that person feeling ignored or even invisible. Or, particularly with children, they stare and ask questions because they don’t understand.

There needs to be a balance between the two. Looking at somebody who has different needs in the same way you would glance at anybody in the shopping centre can make them feel validated and acknowledged. Treating a person in a wheelchair as any other person, and talking to them in the same manner takes away the feeling of difference, and creates a feeling of sameness.

Children should be encouraged to treat everybody in the same way, and to not ignore the differences – but to embrace them and to acknowledge that everybody has ‘stuff’ that makes them unique. This acknowledgement of difference though, also needs to be sensitive.

Staring, and loud questions of “why is she walking like that,” while very often innocent and childlike, can be hurtful or embarrassing. Children with special needs or disabilities want to be spoken to in the same way as a person without special needs would be spoken to. While they may require speaking to be louder if they’re hard of hearing, or softer if they’re sensory sensitive, they still want to be treated in the same way as another, not pitied or spoken down to.

Certain barriers may require an adjustment of the content of a conversation, or simpler language used, but a person with special needs or disabilities can still be spoken to in the same way, with the same tone, interest and kindness.

Disability awareness for kids

Asking your child questions that require them to consider another child’s feelings can assist in their empathy development and awareness about other children with disabilities. These questions can also be asked during story time too – asking your child why a certain character may be behaving in a certain way, what could be making them sad, or how they may be feeling in a certain situation.

Make sure that empathy is not confused with pity or sympathy. Many parents of children with special needs have reported that they do not want pity from others, and do not need it – they are proud of their families. Encourage your child to not feel sorry for a child with special needs, but to rather understand their challenges and feelings.

While you want your child to be aware of others with disabilities, you don’t want this awareness to become a constant noticing of others who are different. The ideal is to have a balance between acknowledging that somebody is differently abled (which does not define them) and your children not constantly looking out for how people are different, but rather seeing how they are unique.

Being aware means breaking stereotypes and preconceptions about disability, and using the knowledge to educate others. By making children aware of disabilities, they in turn can create awareness for others and advocate for those with disabilities when they need it.

Some useful resources

Often times it is helpful to make use of books, stories and movies to help our children gain a greater understanding of topics that might be difficult to talk about or to grasp, and understanding disabilities and differences is no exception to this. The following are some useful books or movies that parents can read or watch with their children to open up a discussion about differently abled people:

  • Wonder
  • Finding Dory
  • Me Before You (PG)
  • The Fundamentals of Caring (PG16)
  • Meet Clarabelle Blue
  • El Deafo
  • What Are Your Superpowers?
  • Prince Preemie: A Tale of a Tiny Puppy Who Arrives Early

Also read: 

My Down syndrome child
4 ways creativity can help children with special needs