Diverse group of compassionate kids sitting on bench laughing

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How to talk to your kid about people with special needs

Conversations about developmental differences are key to raising a compassionate kid

A t some point, it’ll happen—as a parent, you’ll have to talk about developmental differences with your child. Maybe a new classmate will have a physical or intellectual disability, or your family will see someone in a wheelchair, or it’ll come up on TV. (In 2015, Sesame Street introduced a new Muppet, Juliawho has autism, so maybe you already have!) It might not be a comfortable conversation—after all, even talking about developmental differences with adults can feel awkward at times—but it’s a necessary one when raising compassionate kids. Here’s what you should keep in mind. 

Use the right words

Your child will speak about developmental differences the same way that you do, so be sure to use inclusive language that’s up-to-date.

 “When we talk to parents who’ve received a diagnosis, we have to be careful about word choices. We always talk to them from a place of positivity,” says Sasha Delgado, manager of the preschool speech and language program at Macaulay Child Development Centre, which supports children and their families in Toronto.

Focus on ability  

Terri Hewitt, vice-president of developmental services at Surrey Place Centre, which serves children and adults with developmental disabilities, also thinks it’s a good idea to emphasize abilities. “I advise parents to highlight what a person can do rather than focusing on what they can’t,” she says.   

Hewitt often talks to elementary school children about cognitive differences; she says she always starts with a general discussion about what makes each person special, making sure to highlight positive traits rather than negative ones.

When you’re talking to your kids at home, follow Hewitt’s lead. Start the conversation by asking your kids what makes them unique, and have them identify their own physical abilities and personality traits. Then, if your child has a classmate or friend with an intellectual disability, talk about challenges he or she might have with learning, whether it’s reading, doing math or speaking up in class.

Explain that certain terms can make people feel left out and unhappy, and that using the right words helps you avoid hurting their feelings.   

Encourage compassion 

After you’ve talked about some of the challenges that developmental differences can cause, emphasize the importance of empathy. Talk to your children about their own strengths and weaknesses and help them see that they’d want help from others in areas where they struggle, too.   

Hewitt says separating cognitive skill from personality is also helpful. After all, being a kind, thoughtful and helpful person has nothing to do with a person’s developmental differences.  

You may even find that, by considering the way you talk to your child about people with disabilities, you’ve changed the way you think about them, too. And who can’t do with a bit of personal growth?