Here are tips for equipping your child to interact well with their special needs peers.
Equipping Your Child to Interact Well With Their Special Needs Peers
Parenting a child with special needs is no easy job, and I have the utmost respect for these parents. I also have the responsibility to equip my own kids to understand how to appropriately interact with peers with special needs. Here are some suggestions for helping young people become confident in reaching out to build relationships with peers who may look, sound, communicate, process information or move differently than they do.
* PRAY. One of the things we need to pray for our own kids is that they would grow in love for others, and grow in understanding those who may be confusing or frustrating to them in their flesh. By beginning with prayer (in this endeavor, and in all things) we are going to the Source of all love, and asking Him to enlarge our children’s hearts to extend love to all men.
* TALK AHEAD OF TIME. Sometimes we fail to talk to our kids about physical disabilities, speech impairments, autism, developmental disabilities, or the myriad other challenges that are a part of everyday life for many individuals but may not occur in our own immediate world. Intentionally introduce the subject of ministering in love to people with special needs in your homeschool. Use video, books, and conversation to honestly and fearlessly explore the topic.
Allow your kids to begin with using whatever words they need to in expressing their feelings when they think about interacting with someone with special needs. If they say things like “weird,” or “scary” or “embarrassing” in this private conversational context, they are not being mean — they have to be able to honestly articulate how they feel in their flesh in order to recognize that they need something more, something from God, in order to deal with relationships that are out of their comfort zone. When you make it safe for them to admit that they are intimidated by certain situations, you can then lovingly show them that Christ is our strength in weakness, and that we need to ask Him to equip us to reach out in love, to change our view of people who are different than us, and to teach us to minister to them in His love.
If I wait until a situation is unexpectedly thrust upon my child, I have done him (and the person with special needs) a great disservice. My child needs to be equipped through conversation and research before the situation is in front of him.
* BE DIRECT. Every individual with special needs is just that: an INDIVIDUAL with special needs. There is no cookie-cutter that can be applied to a person because of a diagnosis. The vast majority of people with special needs appreciate direct questions like, “Is there a way that I can help with this, or do you prefer that I stay out of your way?” Asking the parent of a child with special needs very basic questions like, “What kinds of help may I offer your child?” will do more equipping in a few moments than weeks of fumbling and fearing offense.
If the child or parent is taken aback by your question, don’t be offended. That is simply your answer; this is a person for whom help from strangers or casual acquaintances is not desired. Typically this type of reaction is NOT what you will get, but sometimes an individual or family is in the process of emotional adjustment to the special needs, and may not be comfortable to talk about it with you. If you have asked the question in love, you can rest assured that you have not really offended, only offered help and been told that it is not needed at this time.
* DON’T CRINGE. If your children are young, they are likely to ask something of a person with special needs (especially visible physical disabilities) that may make you want to cringe. Of a person with atrophied limbs, “Why do you legs look like that?” is not an insult, it’s a genuine request for information. The person who is dealing with those atrophied limbs every moment of every day is likely to simply answer the question. Don’t make the situation complicated by jumping in to answer for them unless they seem unwilling to answer for themselves. Following up with a gentle word of appreciation for the information validates everyone involved.
* GET SPECIFIC WHEN YOU NEED TO. An ongoing relationship (a co-op, a Sunday school class, a drama production) with someone with special needs will result in specific challenges where a solution will not be obvious. Pray, take a deep breath, and deal with them specifically when they arise. The longer you put off asking the awkward question or suggesting the delicate suggestion the harder it will be for everyone.
A hygiene issue arose in a play I directed in which a teenage student on the autism spectrum was unable to process my instructions to the whole cast about being diligent in using deodorant when we were working up a sweat close to one another onstage. (Honestly, our church sanctuary where we held rehearsals was beginning to smell like a locker room!) I had already spoken to the parents to make sure that the student was able to use deodorant, and I knew that the parents had sent a stick in to rehearsal. But group admonitions like, “Wow, guys, we are really work hard here and it’s starting to smell like it! May I tactfully suggest we all check our deodorant?” were lost. The response I got was a big smile: “I made sure I put it on when I got out of the shower!”
What to do? How to breathe? The other students were struggling mightily with the situation. I prayed, I took my student leaders in the cast aside privately and explained the new plan to them, and then I turned the challenge into a new cast-bonding activity. In a cast meeting, I explained that as we approached opening night the sweat was getting out of control, and we would have to re-apply deodorant whenever I called for it. Regardless of when you last put it on, it would be an act of cast solidarity to add a little more when asked to. My student leaders piped in with encouragement to everyone – “I make sure I shower and put on deodorant before rehearsal, and I STILL am getting smelly by the end of the first hour. I think re-applying during rehearsal is a good idea.”
Guess what? It worked beautifully! “RE-APPLY!!” became a rallying cry for the cast. I would call it out, or one of the student leaders who noticed things “going south” on stage would start it, and before you know it every member of the cast was calling it out in response, marching merrily to their duffle bags to pull out a stick of deodorant. It was the craziest thing; what could have ostracized a student became a rallying point for everyone in the cast.
* ADDRESS YOUR OWN FEARS. Sometimes we struggle to equip our kids to deal appropriately with special needs because we ourselves are uneasy or face fears of our own related to the particular disability or challenge. Be honest with God first about your fears. Then find someone with whom you can share honestly about your struggle. Seek education for yourself via the internet or community resources. Joni and Friends has fantastic resources for understanding individuals with physical disabilities.
One VERY important book for homeschool high schoolers to read is Joni by Joni Eareckson Tada. It is the autobiography of Joni, who was confined to a wheelchair after a diving accident when she was a teenager. She shares about God’s redemptive love as she encourages others with her Joni and Friends ministry. Download out our study guide to Joni!