Talking with Young Children about Disabilities

Discussing Delays and Disabilities

In order to teach children about disabilities and special needs, a parent or caregiver should be open to the child’s curiosity and answer their questions in honest and developmentally appropriate ways. Encouraging children to interact as they would with anyone else, without pretending that the disability doesn’t exist, is important to forming relationships and understanding empathy.

Deborah Elbaum, M.D. shares the following tips on for teaching your child about peers with special needs:

  • Basic ideas to share with your child
    • No two people are the same — some differences are just more noticeable.
    • A disability is only one characteristic of a person. People have many facets: likes and dislikes, strengths and challenges.
    • Children with disabilities are like all children in that they want friends, respect and to be included.
    • Children can be born disabled or become disabled from an accident or illness.
    • Just because someone has a physical disability (when a part or parts of the body do not work well) does not mean they necessarily have a cognitive (or thinking) disability.
    • Children with disabilities can do many of the things your child does, but it might take them longer. They may need assistance or adaptive equipment to help them.
  • Special needs at school
    • Special teachers may come into the classroom to work one-on-one with the student.
    • Sometimes students will leave the room for a part of the day for individualized attention.
    • Accommodations may be present in the classroom. For example, a teacher may wear a microphone so that a student with a hearing impairment can hear better in school.
  • Getting to know children with disabilities
    • Most parents of children with disabilities would prefer that other adults ask them about their child directly, rather than avoiding them. A smile or friendly “Hello!” is an easy icebreaker.
    • Even if a child doesn’t talk, there are still activities the children can do together, such as play board games or arts and crafts.
    • Have a playdate with a child with a disability or invite him or her to a birthday party. Call the other parent and say simply, “How can we make this work?”
    • Share any concerns with the other parent. Parents of children with disabilities will often be happy to facilitate a successful play date or outing.
  • Learning more about disabilities
    • Read picture books with younger children and discuss them afterward.
    • Chapter books with characters who have special needs are appropriate for older readers. Ask your child about the book when he or she is done — maybe you’ll be intrigued and read it yourself.
    • Some audio-visual materials have positive portrayals of children with disabilities. “Sesame Street,” for example, routinely includes children with disabilities in their episodes.
    • Websites with age-appropriate explanations and activities can be interesting and fun to explore.

Invisible Disabilities in Young Children

According to the Invisible Disabilities Association, an invisible disability is a physical, mental, or neurological condition that is not visible from the outside, yet can limit or challenge a person’s movements, senses, or activities. Unfortunately, the fact that these symptoms are invisible can lead to misunderstandings, false perceptions, or judgements.

Educating young children about invisible disabilities is also important. Explain how there are disabilities that we cannot see that affect a child’s behavior or mood. Emphasize that it’s not always up to the child whether they react a certain way to a situation – sometimes their mind or body responds for them.  It’s important to embrace these conversations with young, curious minds rather than to shy away from them (via We Are Teachers).

A group of young children in a child care programming sitting in a circle as early care professionals engage them happily.

Series Navigation

The Developmentally Appropriate Parenting Series highlights several early childhood topics to support parents and caregivers who are caring for young children. Use the list below to navigate through each series topic:

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Picture: A young baby looks up at the camera.
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