t's time to start preparing for back-to-school or the first time to attend school. I work with children with disabilities under the age of three years of age. So, when they go to "school" it is usually one to three days a week at a local preschool or at a church's Mother Days Out (MDO) program. A couple of worries that many of the parents have in sending their young child with special needs to school is "Will the other children understand my child's issues?" and "How will I explain my child's disabilities to the other young children?". I usually respond by telling them to meet with the teacher ahead of time and discuss how you will handle it. Usually giving the other children a short explanation on the first day of school solves the problem. I think that this is a hard thing for some of these parents due to past experiences. Maybe they had other children just stop and stare at their child in public. Or even worse, they have had another adult do the same thing. Typically developing children are more understanding than we give them credit. It is often the parent of the typically developing child or another adult in their life that mishandles the situation or causes a fear reaction. Because if you just give the child a short explanation when they are staring, and tell them not to stare, that usually fixes things.
I like to think that my children will learn from example. I try to treat all people with respect. When I see another person in the elevator or stand next to someone in the grocery store line, I look them in the eye and talk to them...no matter the race or if they have a disability. So, teaching my children to treat others with respect hasn't been hard so far, because they see their parents doing it already. This can be the root of the problem in explaining disabilities to other children...they haven't seen their parents interact with persons with a disability or haven't seen them show respect. This includes making fun of people or insulting someone by calling them "retarded"....how rude can you get! When I hear another person do such a thing, I am sure to set them straight!
When I am explaining a child's (or adult's) disability to another young child, I keep my explanations simple. I am thinking back to how I explained things to my now 5 year old daughter when she was 2 1/2 or 3 years old...I definately kept is short and simple. Although I am an occupational therapist and have taken my daughter to birthday parties of some of my young clients, she has also been exposed to persons with a disability elsewhere including church, stores, and our home.
When I explained to her about a child or adult who is visually impaired, I simply said "Her eyes do not work the same as ours do. Her hands and the special "machine" she has helps her to see." I did not explain the diagnosis or why the child was visually impaired nor did I talk about all of the intricacies of the adaptive equipment the child might have had. For young children, the simpler the better.
When I explained to her about a child or adult who uses a wheelchair, I simply said "His legs do not work the same as ours do, the wheelchair helps him to get to places." The only problem I had with adults in wheelchairs who were strangers was my daughter asking if she could take a ride. This is because one of our good friends who is paralyzed lets her sit on his lap and "go for a spin".
When I explained to her about developmental disabilities such as an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) or Down Syndrome, I never told her the "diagnosis". I simply said, "He can't talk or play the same you and I do." This was enough for her, and she would play with them on the level that they could play. She even learned more sign language than I had initially taught her.
I think that my daughter now understands all of this better than some adults do. This last school year in her preschool class she enjoyed playing with a young boy with a severe speech impairment. She liked "translating" what he had to say or meant by his gestures. She had fun giggling and playing with him, and wasn't even the slightest bit bothered by his disability. She even seemed understanding when he had meltdowns and tantrums!