Americans who know someone with an intellectual disability (ID) are significantly more likely than those who don't know anyone with the condition to feel comfortable having their child in the same class as a child with ID. They're also more likely to feel at least somewhat comfortable emplying a person with ID, and having their child date and marry someone with ID. In other words, knowing (and befriending) someone with ID makes you more open-minded—something most parents strive to instill in their children.
As I read those findings from the Shriver Report Snapshot: Insight into Intellectual Disabilities in the 21st Century, which polled 2,021 adults in the United States, I kept wanting to jump up and shout "YES!!!" As the mom of a child with special needs, I know how hard it can be to get parents to encourage their children to play and interact with Max, who has cerebral palsy. Neighbors who are familiar with Max aren't an issue so much as the parents we might encounter at, say, a playground. Sometimes, if a child is staring at Max, a parent might break the ice and say hello to both of us. More often, the parent does nothing and I am the one forced to bridge the social gap.
I'll never forget an incident years ago when Max and I were at a bookstore. Max walked over to a little boy and said "Hi!" in his Max sort of way. The kid said hello back but the mother, immediately recognizing Max's special needs, shot Max a concerned look and hustled her child away. Max didn't really notice what had happened, but I was so disturbed.
I'm obviously not the most objective person on the topic, given that I have a kid with intellectual disability, but surveys like this make it clear that befriending a person with ID can open a typically-developing child's mind to the glorious variety of people that exist in this world. Oftentimes, when we think about teaching a child about diversity, it relates to race, religion, and maybe sexual orientation—but disability, not so much. Kids who are friendly with children who have ID and other special needs can also strengthen their sense of patience, empathy, and flexibility. And of course, children like my son are a whole lot of fun, if I do say so myself.
I know that sometimes it's hard, as a parent, to know what to do. I often say that getting to know a child with a disability starts with the most simple thing of all: Just say "hi." It also helps to have a conversation with kids about the many types of children in this world, and how some may seem different from them. You could note that children with Down syndrome may talk a little more slowly; children with cerebral palsy may need braces, a walker, or a wheelchair to get around; and children with autism may not make eye contact. Then go on to help your child understand that even if these kids appear to be unlike them, they can actually be very much like them. They may like chocolate ice-cream, just like your kid. Or watching Dora. Or playing on the slide. Or they may also not like baths!
Related: Life in a Special-Needs World
What's key is starting a discussion. Not only will it break down fears and barriers, your child will know this is a topic you want to talk about, and might very well come back to you with questions as the years go on. Your kid will have the opportunity to make new friends. My child will have the opportunity to make new friends. Win-win.
Ellen Seidman is a mom of two, editor, and professional snacker who blogs daily at Love That Max. You can find her pondering special needs parenthood and other important topics (such as what her next snack will be) on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Google+ even though she still hasn't totally figured out what that is.
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