Q. My 7-year-old son is uncomfortable around a classmate who has a noticeable physical disability. What can I say to him to get him over his fears?
A. When children are born they look for consistencies in their environment. At 5 months, children know that people move themselves around a room and that chairs don't. People pick up chairs and move them. So then if a child sees a person sitting in a wheelchair, for example, and the wheelchair moves the person around, the child seeing this occur is taken aback, not knowing about this particular phenomenon.
Humans are efficient learners. They size up quickly how people typically walk, talk, and move. When children realize how most people move, walk, and talk, and that they do so with some predictability, then children don't need to learn about each person each time they see a new face or body. They rely on what they've deemed typical and generalize that information quickly to new people and situations. By doing so they feel safe around a variety of individuals who move, talk, and walk in much the same way.
Disabilities Are Differences
So when a person moves talks and walks differently, children, and even some adults, are drawn to see just how that person is different. A child will stare until he realizes just what those differences are all about. People with differences initially perplex those who see them for the first time. Soon, as the differences become familiar, a person focuses on their similarities and commonalities as they shed any fears or uncomfortable feelings.
The more a person understands and is around a broad spectrum of people with atypical behaviors or disabilities, the easier it gets. Therefore it's up to you to embrace your son's discomfort and fear by facing this child and others with disabilities. In time, your son will broaden his comfort zone to people with a variety of skills, abilities, and ways of moving, talking, and getting around. Here are some ways to quicken the process:
- Encourage your child to invite classmates with disabilities over to play, to birthday parties and celebrations, etc., just as he would his peers without disabilities.
- Read your son stories that include children with disabilities. Start with What Was I Scared Of by Dr. Seuss. It's in the book, The Sneetches and Other Stories.
- Watch movies together that feature stories about people with common disabilities, such as Down syndrome or cerebral palsy. Be sure to discuss how just as no two people who don't have a disability are alike, no two people with the same disability are exactly the same, either. Explain as best as possible that not all kids with autism, for example, spin toys or are considered geniuses.
- Model approaching and interacting with people who are differently abled.
- Affirm your child's fears and then offer him information about various syndromes and birth defects.
- Talk up the similarities between all children rather than focus on their differences.
- Teach your child to offer assistance to the peer with disabilities, but making sure not to encourage him to give unwanted help.
- Encourage your child to approach this classmate with questions and interest about his condition.
- Help your child find commonality -- a hobby or interest -- between him and this child with disabilities.
The Bottom Line
Communicate to your child with words and actions that the world is made up of interesting and unique individuals, and that by getting to know this classmate his life will be enriched. You must hope too that the child with disabilities will accept your child's unique personality and appearance.
Jan Faull, MEd, is a veteran parent educator and the author of two parenting books, Mommy, I Have to Go Potty and Unplugging Power Struggles. She writes a biweekly parenting advice column for HealthyKids.com, and a weekly parenting advice column in the Seattle Times newspaper. Jan Faull is the mother of three grown children and lives in the Seattle area.
Originally published on HealthyKids.com, April 2005.