Talking to preschoolers about disabilities

What your preschooler knows — and needs to know

The youngest preschoolers, 2- and 3-year-olds, may not even notice a person’s disability unless it’s plainly obvious or it’s pointed out to them. But they will notice someone using a wheelchair or who has no legs, for example, and wonder why. They might simply stare or ask a question. By age 4, children will definitely notice that someone doesn’t talk, walk or eat like everyone else, and they often start blurting out questions. They might even wonder if a disability can happen to them. How you respond to those first innocent and curious observations will affect the way your child thinks about disabilities and treats others as she grows up.

How to begin talking about disabilities with your preschooler

Watch for an opening. The first time your preschooler notices that someone has a disability, start a conversation about differences. You might say, “Finn, I see you’re noticing a person who’s different than you. Just like we all have different color skin and hair, people are different in all kinds of ways.” Then tell him what you know in very plain terms — that the man has a seeing-eye dog or cane because he can’t see, for example, or that the woman is using sign language because she can’t hear. The goal is to foster an attitude of acceptance and inclusion.

Answer questions directly. As always with young kids, don’t go into a long-winded response — just answer the question asked. Susan Linn, a psychologist at the Judge Baker Children’s Center at Harvard Medical School, offers this matter-of-fact response to a question about a person in a wheelchair: “I imagine he may be having problems with his legs. He can’t walk.” And if you don’t know the answer to a question your preschooler poses, just say so.

Ruth Bond of San Francisco has 4-year-old twins, one with Angelman’s syndrome, a disability that shows up both developmentally and physically. When her typically developed twin, Max, asks why his brother Ben “doesn’t have words” or has therapists come by the house to “play” with him, she simply replies that “Ben needs help doing certain things” — a positive explanation that has so far satisfied Max’s curiosity.

Watch your words. Take care in how you describe people with disabilities — your child is listening. Avoid outdated, derogatory terms like “crippled,” “retarded,” and “handicapped.” Put the emphasis on the person and not the disability. Say “the child who is autistic” versus “that autistic child.” Also avoid referring to nondisabled kids as “normal,” since it implies abnormality or a defect in others.

When you and your child encounter someone with a disability, there’s no need to say “Don’t stare” or “Let’s keep moving” to your child. People with disabilities may feel stigmatized by those who avoid them, and your child might get the impression that she can’t ask you questions. Instead, simply describe how the person walks or communicates in a different way.

Emphasize what’s the same. A kid may be physically or mentally disabled, but he’s still a kid. Point out what a playmate or neighbor with a disability has in common with your preschooler — like the same age, height, neighborhood, and favorite color or sport.

Alison Baquero-Cruz of Omaha, Nebraska, whose 3-year-old son, Jaime, has cerebral palsy, says, “I always stress to other kids that Jaime is like them. He likes to draw and watch SpongeBob and do other kid things, but he can’t do things the same way — for example, his wheelchair replaces walking for him.”

Offer reassurance. Sometimes kids worry that a disability will “rub off” on them. Let your preschooler know privately that it doesn’t work that way.

Teach respect. If you hear your preschooler referring to someone with a disability as “stupid” or saying that he walks or talks “funny,” take a moment to discourage such teasing. Explain just how much those words can hurt and point out that looking or behaving differently doesn’t make someone stupid.

Answers to common preschooler questions about disabilities

“Can that happen to me?” Depending on what sort of a disability your child is noticing, reassure him that most people with disabilities are born that way. And that you do your best to keep him safe from an injury that could disable an arm, say, or a leg, by having rules about wearing a bike helmet and crossing the street safely.

“Why doesn’t she talk like us?” If you know the answer to this one or can guess, tell your preschooler in simple terms she’ll understand: “She has trouble with the muscles that make it easy to talk.” Baquero-Cruz answers questions from other preschoolers this way: “Jaime has something called cerebral palsy, or CP. He had an injury at birth and has an owie in his brain. This causes him not to be able to do all the things that you and I can do. He will walk and talk someday, but right now he can’t.”

“Why don’t her legs work?” Keep it simple: “She might have had an accident that hurt her legs. That’s why she gets around in a wheelchair.”

“Does he like me?” Four-year-olds start to become really concerned about who likes them and who doesn’t. If a child has a disability like autism and doesn’t interact with others much, your preschooler might wonder why and even take it personally. Jodi Vetter, who has a 4-year-old son with autism, suggests this response: “Yes, he likes you, but he doesn’t know how to tell you he likes you.” You can also encourage your child to show the child with a disability how to join in a game.

What else you can do

Model acceptance by reaching out to people with disabilities. Say hello at the playground, church, synagogue, or school.

Embrace any chance for your child to be around people with disabilities. Have a friend with a child who has a disability? Arrange a playdate. If you come across a playgroup or preschool that includes children with disabilities, be open to this opportunity.

Tune into shows that feature characters with disabilities, like preschooler-friendly Sesame Street and Dragon Tales.

Take a fresh look at your child’s books and DVDs. If they have no characters with disabilities or if the treatment of characters with disabilities seems outdated, add some fresh ones to the mix.


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