6 things you need to know about my child with special needs

Advice from mothers on how to approach someone with special needs

child of special needs

Moms of children with special needs endure a full spectrum of greetings, from apologies and hearsay cures to disbelief and even ridicule. You would be amazed at the things people have said to me about my child and yet, it happens so often that it's something all parents of children with special needs can relate to.

Our job as special needs parents is not only to advocate for our children to ensure they receive the proper services and learn about the world around them, but also to continually educate our family and friends. Awareness is all about sharing our stories to encourage understanding and empathy.

1. Please don't apologize
If we focus only on the diagnosis and its limitations, then we could miss the wonderful child in front of us. Especially with recent advancements in therapy and assistive aides, children with special needs are living fulfilling lives without missing out on anything as compared to typical peers. So, please don't apologize when you see a child in a wheelchair or using special equipment. These aides allow our children to be capable and independent. And more importantly, our children are not their devices or their diagnosis.

Even if you mean well or can't think of anything else to say, acknowledging the disability first is heartbreaking to hear. Melissa-Lynn from Middletown doesn't want people to focus on her son's hearing aids. "He is a boy. He is a human. He loves to laugh and run and play. My kiddo is loved and fine and living his best life. He is capable of everything any other kiddo his age does, he just doesn't hear 100% like they do."

Instead of apologizing…
So, what can you say instead? Exactly what you would say to any typical family: "Your child is adorable, what a great smile, I love that outfit," etc. We want our children to be seen for who they are - awesome, well-loved kids.

2. "But he doesn't look like he has a disability"

So how can you tell if a child has a disability? You can't.

That's why it's so important to check with the parents first. We would much prefer you ask permission to say hello before bending down and popping into the child's personal space bubble unannounced.

My son is on the autism spectrum and very wary of meeting anyone new. The smell of your perfume, the color of your clothes, even the sound of your voice are all unfamiliar and therefore could create loads of anxiety. However, when I have the opportunity to make the introduction first, then the encounter becomes so much easier for everyone.

Additionally, family and friends who don't visit on a regular basis could possibly be viewed as strangers. Even though you just want to pick up that adorable child and give them a great big squeeze, this interaction could be traumatizing.

Instead of entering my child's personal space unannounced…
Instead, let the parent re-introduce you, explaining how you're related and about the last time you were all together. Offering to talk about one of the child's passions like a character or hobby will also go a long way towards a meaningful re-connection.

3. His meltdowns aren't my fault
When in full swing of a public meltdown, passersby are so quick to throw judgement citing poor parenting or even worse, reprimanding the child directly. There's absolutely nothing worse, when trying to maintain calmness for our child during those exhausting moments, than having to also deflect hurtful comments and sneers.

Meltdowns for children with autism spectrum disorder and sensory processing issues can be caused by so many factors and usually occur unannounced, without any noticeable triggers. Our job is to create a safe space so our child can work through their meltdown. It may look like screaming and a complete disregard for everyone else, but their little systems are just overloaded. And even for typically developing children, a skipped nap or snack could cause a meltdown just the same. Come to think of it, when I go way too long between meals I have a seriously hard time trying not to lose it. #Hangry is a thing for a reason!

RELATED: Meltdowns vs. tantrums

Instead of judging…
Rather than offering solutions, give that mama and her screaming child some space. Actually, the best support you could offer is a "You got this!" In that moment, words of encouragement could truly give her the strength she needs.

4. Don't hush your child when they ask questions
Melissa-Lynn says, "Educate your children that everyone has similarities and differences and it is okay. Don't hush your child when they ask a blunt question or pull them away in shame. Kids have no problem looking and asking about my son's hearing aids. I explain why he wears them, they get their answer, and go back to playing. Encourage them to be accepting and kind and inclusive."

One day at the park, a little girl was trying to play with my son, but he just kept repeating everything she said. When she looked to me for an explanation, I simply said that sometimes he doesn't know what to say so he just repeats others (echolalia). This bright little girl thought about it for a moment and replied, "Oh, so it's like his way of talking," and then just went right back to playing with him. This was such a genuine, beautiful moment for us.

Instead of staring…
Questions are always welcome. We want our kids to make friends. We want you to know about our kids too. Just as we teach our children about the big world around them, we want to teach the world about our children.

5. "Special needs for special parents"
This is a phrase I wish would go away. The sentiment is well-intentioned, but as Melissa-Lynn explains, "You can't choose a special needs journey nor does being on one make you 'special'."

"We are all on our own journey and our children come out better when they see parents raising each other up, and kiddos being taught that differently-abled is ok."

6. My son's diagnosis is just part of him
When her son was first getting his diagnosis, Jessica from Middletown noticed the people closest to her seemed to have a hard time coming to terms with the fact that there was something else there. She recalls, "We'd hear 'but he's so sweet', 'but he's so smart', 'but he's so perfect', etc. That's when I realized the power and importance of the word and. My guy is sweet and smart and perfect and has Apraxia."

Our children's diagnosis shouldn't be the only thing you see, but it is still a part of them and their daily lives. Be open to communication about it. Ask questions. Learn about what the diagnosis means for that family. Learn about how to form a better relationship with the parents and child by becoming informed, more open, and more understanding.

Rielly is a part-time writer and full-time mama to an adorable toddler with autism.