5 things you should say to parents of kids with special needs

1. "Hello!" This one’s simple.

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I get it—it can be intimidating to know exactly what to say when you meet a kid with special needs. When we’re out of our element, it’s much easier to avoid the situation instead of figuring it out. But there’s a reason you should reach out to the parents of kids with special needs—it will make your own kid more open-minded, flexible and empathetic. Also, it means the world to the families who have kids with special needs.

So, next time you meet the parents of a kid with special needs, here are some things you could say:

1. “Hello!”
This one’s simple. Just say hi, to both the parent and the kid. It’s a universally friendly greeting and immediately opens up a line of communication. Pointing, staring or remaining silent doesn’t improve the situation—for anyone.

2. “That’s a cool wheelchair (or noise-cancelling headphones, walker, etc.)…”
A kid’s disability doesn’t have to be the elephant in the room. Most parents are perfectly comfortable (and happy!) to chat about our kid’s strengths and needs. You don’t have to pretend like it doesn’t exist. Avoid asking insensitive questions like, “What’s wrong with your child?” On a good day, my response will be, “Nothing is wrong with her. She has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair to get around. But she’s healthy and happy.” On a bad day, my response will be, “Nothing. What’s wrong with you?”

3. “Is there anything I can do to help?”
This is a great question if you witness a parent struggling. Sometimes we have to tackle going up or down a few steps while our kid is in a wheelchair (and there’s no ramp) or they’re trying to finish grocery shopping while their kid has a sensory-induced meltdown. Sometimes a helping hand is all that is needed. However, don’t assume you know how to help and just jump in without asking—certain situations call for certain actions. Ask the parent directly what it is that they need. They’ll appreciate the offer.

4. “How can we include your child?”
Parents of kids with special needs struggle with inclusion all the time. We often worry about our kids’ social lives—from playdates, to birthday parties to having someone to play with during recess. Asking this shows us that our kids are welcome in your life. Avoid comments like, “Well, we wanted to include your kid, but we didn’t think she’d have any fun.” Those types of assumptions only serve to hurt us and our kids. Believe me, we’re used to finding ways to include our kids in most activities and we’re happy to share our ideas with you.

5. “Your kid is really… [insert compliment here: smart, funny, happy, etc.]”
Our kids are more than their disabilities. Sure, Syona’s hot-pink wheelchair may be the first thing you notice about her, but there’s so much more to her than a cool set of wheels. When you take the time to notice other things about her, it means a lot.

So, start up a conversation! We have much more in common with you than you think and we’re more than happy to have a new friend to have coffee with—we need a lot of caffeine, after all!

What else would you add to this list?

Follow along as Anchel Krishna shares her experiences as mother to Syona, an extraordinary five-year-old with cerebral palsy. Read all of Anchel’s special-needs parenting posts and follow her on Twitter @AnchelK.

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