You’ve seen us: The mom encouraging her daughter to push her own wheelchair, the dad pulling into the handicapped parking spot, the grandparent struggling with a child having a meltdown. We’re special needs families.
Maybe you’ve looked away because you felt we should have privacy. Perhaps you weren’t sure what to say, or you felt a bit sad when you looked at our child. Or maybe, thankfully, you decided to treat us like every other parent and offered a smile instead. Regardless of the situation, we struggle to do the right thing when we feel out of our element.
So, with school starting this week (seriously, where did the summer go?), I’ve gathered some tips from myself and other parents of kids with special needs.
1. Talk to our kids. A lot of people, especially adults, don’t directly acknowledge our kids. Sure, my daughter may take an extra minute to respond to a question—and there are some kids who are non-verbal—but everyone appreciates being spoken to directly. Our kids are just kids first and foremost—they aren’t defined solely by their diagnosis. Like your kids, my daughter loves chocolate cake, stickers and manipulating you with an adorable smile.
2. Please don’t act like the parents are invisible. A simple smile or wave can go a long way.
3. Step in and help. The best thing a stranger can do is hold open a door or help pack a grocery bag when a parent's hands are full. Lending a hand, in any way, means a lot.
4. Ask the "right" questions. “What’s wrong with your kid?” isn’t the best lead question. Nor is it tactful. However, you can make casual observations like “I see that you daughter uses a wheelchair…” and I will fill in the blanks. If you have a question, and you wouldn't be offended if someone asked you that very same question, than go ahead and ask us.
5. Invite me for a coffee. Or ask my child for a playdate. If you aren’t sure what accommodations need to be made, just ask.
6. Don't bring religion into it, or make a comment on how amazing we are. Telling us you believe God gave parents what they can handle—or making comments wondering how we manage our child's needs—can be quite hurtful. Why? Well, spiritual beliefs can be quite personal, so maybe wait until you reach a deeper level of friendship before bringing religion into the equation. And when you express awe at our ability to parent our kids, please remember that we're doing exactly what you are doing in raising your own children. They are our kids, and we love them. The same way you love yours. Parenting isn't easy. Ever.
Although our kids have special needs, our lives are so much more than a series of diagnoses or challenges. Like any other parent, we spend a lot of time playing, laughing, worrying, cleaning, disciplining and plotting ways to get more sleep. Some of our concerns, priorities and perspectives may be different, but a friendly face is always welcome… and it's often needed more than you know.
So, next time you see the parent of a child with special needs, just say hello.
What tips would you add to this list?
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