Talking to Kids About Peers With Disabilities: Perspective From Fort Myers Occupational Therapists
As FOCUS Fort Myers occupational therapists, we help children with disabilities overcome impediments to independence, adapt to the world around them (or adapt the world to them) and acquire the tools necessary to navigate each day. One key component of this is learning appropriate socialization – particularly with peers. Through play-based approaches, our clients learn to recognize personal space, read body language, handle greetings, manage unexpected interactions, participate in conversations, take turns, avoid conflicts and understand and express their emotions.
Problems with socialization for children with disabilities can be compounded when peers’ reactions are overwhelmingly negative. To be fair: It’s natural for any child to be curious, hesitant or possibly even scared when encountering notable differences for the first time. Every parent has at least one story about the time their child said something mortifying in pointing out another person’s differences (usually very loudly, in public, and in a line where there is no quick escape). But the truth is: They’re still learning socialization skills too. It’s a teaching moment.
Talking to your kids about peers with disabilities increases understanding and acceptance, encourages inclusion and can even help reduce bullying (to which children with disabilities are especially vulnerable).
Long-practicing occupational therapists in South Florida know it wasn’t so long ago children with disabilities were far more isolated from society in daily life. The 13 percent of Americans with disabilities were often taught in different classrooms, denied accommodations allowing them access to the same facilities and arbitrarily boxed out of many career choices. The good news is that’s changing, most recently with the U.S. Department of Education’s new policy statement on inclusion in early childhood programs. The DOE policy declares unequivocally that inclusion of children with disabilities from a young age offers maximum benefit and should be every district’s goal.
That means if he or she is not already, your child will soon have daily interaction with at least one peer who has a disability. Helping them understand differences – and framing those differences in a positive way – can make a big difference.
Occupational Therapists: Basic Ideas to Share With Young Children
Talking about disabilities can be an uncomfortable topic for parents because sometimes even they aren’t sure the “right” thing to say. Some general ideas our FOCUS Fort Myers occupational therapists think are worth conveying to start:
- Nobody is exactly the same as everybody else. The world would be pretty boring if that were true! Some differences we notice more than others and you notice right away. Sometimes people have differences you can’t see just by looking at them. Everyone needs to be treated with kindness.
- A disability is just one part of a whole person. Everyone has things they are good at and other things maybe not so much. There is much more to a person than just the things with which they struggle.
- Just like you, a child with disabilities wants to make friends, be respected and be included. Name-calling – even if meant to be funny and not mean – can still really hurt people’s feelings, and it isn’t Ok.
- Just because a friend has a body part that might not work as well as yours (called a physical disability) doesn’t automatically mean they have a thinking (cognitive) disability too.
- A disability isn’t something you can catch by being friends with somebody. It’s something a person is either born with or happens because they got hurt or sick. You aren’t going to “catch it.”
- Your friend with disabilities can do many of the same things as you, but it might take them a little longer. They might need some help from another person or use special equipment that allows them to do it themselves.
Of course, this need not be all have to be one big, heavy conversation. Piecemeal it. Keep it simple and age appropriate. Let them digest what they can and know it’s Ok to ask questions.
If you could still use some help, consider bedtime books on disabilities and differences for kids, which can do an excellent job explaining it all in a way that’s comprehensive, yet still easy to understand.
FOCUS occupational therapists in Fort Myers serve children in Lee County and throughout Southwest Florida. Call (239) 313.5049 or Contact Us online.
Inclusion of Children With Disabilities, 2015, The American Occupational Therapy Association
More Blog Entries:
Tackling Tummy Time: Pediatric Occupational Therapists Talk Tips, Jan. 13, 2019, Fort Myers Occupational Therapists Blog