Tuesday, July 24, 2012

What to tell your kid about my kid...

With Andrew starting at a new school in a month, I am starting to become nervous about how he will be treated by an entirely new set of peers. Unfortunately, most kids (and their parents) are not fully equipped to handle such close interactions with a child who has obvious special needs (like a wheelchair). Even though Andrew is fairly typical in many ways, the wheelchair automatically sets him up to be different from everyone else in the class. Sometimes, I wish I could tell people what they need to tell their kids in order to prepare them better. So, I decided to compile a list of the things that irritate me and the things that I have found really help Andrew to be accepted for who he is. Keep in mind that Andrew is only 8 and going into 2nd grade, but this is what has worked so far. It will probably change as he gets older. However, the younger the child is when they are first exposed to kids with special needs, the more accepting they will be of them in the long run.

  1. Don't act like he doesn't exist and don't tell your kids to ignore him. 
    • Andrew has been far more hurt by the kids who ignore him than the kids who ask him questions. He exists and so does his wheelchair. He doesn't see anything wrong with it, so don't tell your kids to not look at or talk to the kid in the wheelchair. Instead, encourage your child to go up to the kid in the wheelchair... just like you would encourage them to talk to any new child. Just recently, Andrew said hi to a little boy about his age. The little boy looked straight ahead and pretended not to hear. So, Andrew wheeled closer and said hi again. Then again. Then, he looked at me and said, "Mom, does he not speak English? He won't answer me." I just told him that the little boy might be shy and that it's ok. Eventually, Andrew will be able to make the connection between the wheelchair and new kids. But for now, he doesn't get it.
  2. Don't be embarrassed by your kids' questions, and don't stop them from asking them.
    • Most kids are truly curious about the wheelchair and why he needs to use it. They are also curious about his braces on his legs and his walker. They don't think that there is anything wrong with it, but they WILL if they pick up on your apprehension. If they ask Andrew why he is in a wheelchair, Andrew will answer. Most kids accept things at face value at this age and don't need an entire medical history. Andrew will simply say that was the way that God made him or that he can't walk and uses the wheelchair to get around. I can't speak for every person in a wheelchair, but it doesn't offend him or me to have people ask. 
  3. Don't tell me or him that you are sad for him or that it is too bad or (yes, this happened) start crying when you see him. It's CONFUSING for a happy kid who doesn't think anything is wrong. It is part  of his life... he is ok with it.
  4. Act like the wheelchair is an extension of his body. 
    • Most kids Andrew's age love to help him. However, Andrew gets really irritated when someone pushes his wheelchair without asking. For him, that's how he gets from place to place. It would be as if someone was pulling you around and pushing you somewhere that you don't really want to go. It gets annoying. It's better for kids to ask the child in the wheelchair if they would like to be pushed... which most of the time Andrew says yes to. He just likes to have the respect of being asked.
  5. Don't over or underestimate him.
    • We have had a lot of issues with this. Some people underestimate Andrew because of the wheelchair. They give him a lot more leeway than they would a typical child. While he does need some accommodations, he should be held accountable like any other child. He can do a lot of things by himself and we are always pushing him to do more. 
    • Also, don't overestimate him, thinking that he should be perfectly well behaved because of the wheelchair. There are times when he gets punished because he calls a friend a name or talks back or does something that is just par for the course with any typical kid. However, people are sometimes shocked that Andrew is capable of calling someone a name or arguing with a friend. He's a kid, not a saint...
  6. Let your kid play with mine.
    • One of the most heartbreaking things for me to see as a parent of a special needs child is when parents of typical kids isolate Andrew. I remember a child coming up to Andrew to talk to him and his dad said, "No! Don't talk to him. Don't play with him. Come here." The child asked why and the dad said, "He's in a wheelchair. Don't look at him."Andrew was confused. He wanted to know why he couldn't talk to that boy. He wanted to know why that dad said that. Andrew may play differently than your child, but he can still play with your child without a problem.
  7. Tell your kids that children with special needs are just like them. 
    • This is so incredibly important. The children who have been taught that special needs kids are just like them not only become friends with special needs kids, but advocate for them as well. I love hearing about a friend of Andrew's sticking up for him if someone teases him or answers questions for him when he meets someone new. The more that a typical child is around the special needs child, the more they realize how much they have in common. 
  8. Converse with the special needs child while your kids are around.
    • Kids follow your lead. If you talk to them, they will talk to them.
  9. Notice the cool things about the child or his equipment and mention them to your child.
    • "Those are cool lights on his wheelchair wheels!" "Wow! A RED wheelchair! It must go super fast. Your favorite color is red, I wonder if that's his too." "That silly face shirt is awesome." "Andrew's new red braces with soccer balls are really cool. You like to play soccer... I wonder if he does too."
    • We have actually had kids tell us that they want a wheelchair for Christmas like Andrew's or would like to trade their scooter for his wheelchair for a few minutes. We try to make his stuff a little "cooler" and more personalized and that has really helped kids to be accepting.
  10. If your child is having a difficult time seeing the similarities, encourage them to find out what the special needs kid is involved in.
    • Most of the special needs kids that I know are involved in activities just like typical kids. Many of them do scouts, Bible study, adaptive sports, swim, summer camps, gymnastics, etc. Andrew is in AWANA and plays baseball and in the past has taken swim lessons, done gymnastics, played wheelchair basketball, and gone to daycamps. I love when a child hears that Andrew can now hit without a tee and is amazed. Usually, they can find something in common.
  11. If your child asks you a question about him, keep it at face value for now. Eventually, they may be interested in more information, but saying, "There is nothing wrong with him and he isn't hurt. His legs work differently than yours do and he uses the wheelchair to get around. He was made like that. Sometimes, that's just the way it is."
  12. Most importantly, emphasize that just because he is in a wheelchair doesn't mean that he can't be their friend. 
Andrew crawling across hay bales at the pumpkin patch school field trip.
His friends are following him and crawling just like him.

1 comment:

  1. While most of your comments seem like common sense responses, it saddens me that you Have To spell it out for some people. Have you considered printing this out and sharing it with his new teacher? She may be able to help guide other parents who may have never been exposed to such as EXTRAordinary child. Thanks for reminding all of us to be loving and considerate to those in wheelchairs.