When Your Child Points Out A Differently-Abled Person, Please Don’t Ignore It

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Nothing strikes fear in my heart quite like my child pointing at another person and saying loudly, “Look, Mama!” Children are naturally curious, and without the social filters we acquire as we age.

A neighbor asked me how to broach the subject with M, her 3-year-old daughter. Grasshopper and Sunshine were out playing with M, and Grasshopper had to stop to check his blood sugar. Their friend was obviously curious and while she didn’t ask any questions, her mom wondered how to address it. I was grateful my neighbor reached out.

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I took my cue from an experience with another neighbor. Last summer at our playground, Grasshopper played one day with a neighbor girl. They are such a sweet family. My kids had the best time playing with her. She does gymnastics, is a fantastic swimmer, and was so kind to play with my little ones. Neither of my kids remember names well, so I made sure to ask. To my kids, everyone is just “my friend.”

The next time we saw her, she was with her family at the pool. Grasshopper was excited to see her again. He and I were on opposite sides of the pool and he shouted to me, “Hey, Mom! There’s the girl with one arm!” Normally my brain is a steel sieve. Information drains right through. Thankfully I remembered her name at that moment and I shouted back, “Her name is MC! Go say hello!” Meanwhile I wanted to sink to the bottom of the pool.

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After Grasshopper greeted his friend, I called him over to our pool side table, and knelt down to talk to him. I asked him how he would feel if someone shouted to him as “that boy with the thing around his waist,” (his insulin pump) or “that kid with the grey thing on” (his Dexcom). Even if it hasn’t happened to him yet, it probably will. I reminded him he has a name, and so does his friend with a limb difference. Yes, one of MC’s arms ends at her elbow. I reminded him, as we have talked many times before about this exact subject, that people look, move, speak, and behave in different ways. Some people use physical aids we can see like hearing aids, wheelchairs, canes, leg braces, insulin pumps, continuous glucose monitors, or eyeglasses like I do. My eyes began to need some outside help when I was in 4th grade. I was bullied for months, but that is a story for another time.

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Glasses and contact lenses are so common that I don’t even think of them as a medical aid, but that’s what they are. Grasshopper’s body doesn’t make insulin anymore, so he needs to either inject it with syringes, an insulin pen, or the pump he wears around his waist. People have differences, but their differences are a part of them, not the whole of who they are.

We can find plenty of similarities, but we can celebrate the differences too. Our differences mean that we have different ways of moving in the world, and that gives us a valuable perspective to share with others. We have to approach people as people first, just as we would like to be approached. I like to hear my name, I love to see a smile and hear a friendly greeting.

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Grasshopper happily played with his friend MC again, and I went to talk to her mom, H. She was so gracious. She said she understood from Grasshopper’s enthusiasm that he really was genuinely excited to see his friend again and gave a straightforward description. I asked her if she had any advice on how to handle it and shared what I had told him. She agreed with the importance of learning and using names. She also shared that she encourages her daughter to acknowledge and embrace her differences.

With her help and that of other friends and colleagues, I developed these 7 tips for knowing what to do when your child says, “Mama, look at that person!”

1. Remember that names are important.

If they don’t know each other, encourage your child to say hello, introduce themselves, and ask the other person’s name.

2. Staring should at least be accompanied by a smile.

Your child might stare. You might too. It is a natural human tendency. Try to smile. Families with differences receive a lot of attention when out in public. As someone who has been on the receiving end of that attention, it is infinitely easier to bear if the attention seems friendly. Which leads me to…

3. Ask!

Your child might ask questions, and that is okay! Children learn by asking questions and by following your example. Please don’t shush them. That sends the message that the difference your child sees is something shameful. It is not. It probably will feel awkward. Embrace it. Ask kindly, sincerely. Use it as a teaching opportunity.

4. Find the commonalities.

Do you both like movies? What is their favorite book? Do they have a pet?

5. Respect personal space.

Not every moment will be a good time to introduce yourself and ask questions. If it is not a good time, respect the other person’s space. Some people are more comfortable fielding questions than others. Our family is happy to talk about type 1 diabetes, but some are not, and that is okay.

6. Talk about it now.

You don’t have to wait until your child meets someone different. Differences are everywhere. Talk to your child about all the differences they might encounter.

7. Be your own advocate.

If you have a child who has a difference, encourage them in their own self advocacy. Let them know they can speak up for themselves!

Here are some further resources for talking to children about differences:

What I Like About Me: This book about everyday differences such as height, braces, and freckles encourages kids to embrace what may be different about themselves and to view differences as positive.

Teaching Your Child About Physical Differences: This website from Children’s Health of Texas offers many resources for teaching compassion and inclusion to children sorted by age from pre-K through 12th grade. How you talk to a toddler about differences will be different from how you talk to a middle school age child.

“Daniel And His Friends” is a handy Daniel Tiger story. Daniel Tiger S4E3 Episode 131 Daniel Tiger’s New Friend/Same and Different For younger children, this episode of Daniel Tiger with Chrissie is a good introduction into talking about differences.

And here are some books specifically about Type 1 diabetes:

Medikidz Explain Type 1 Diabetes: What’s Up with Ashligh?

Taking Diabetes To School

The Bravest Girl In School