What do you tell your typical child about a special needs child?

     I understand the confusion about how to act when someone isn’t as typical as the people we are usually around. I remember myself before I was an autism mommy and I also had a hard time knowing the best way to act around someone who is different. Now I am on the receiving end, and I realize people simply don’t know how to act sometimes.

 Typical reactions we get once they realize he is “special” are:

  • That sweet, pitiful smile. You know the one I am talking about. It’s the same one you give to the guy in the wheelchair. I used to get the same smile from everyone when I had a broken foot and used the mechanical wheelchair in the grocery store.
  • The “look away he’s got something wrong with him” reaction. You know, when you look right at him and then you are scared we will think you are staring so you do the opposite of staring – you direct your eyes away so as not to seem like a looky-loo.
  • The audible “Awwwwwww” like the same sound you make when someone tells you their puppy died.

     But the reaction that has me the most irked lately is the way most parents respond when their typical child is trying to talk to my child with autism.

     Here’s a scenario to illustrate:

     My child is running back and forth on the playground. The other child approaches him and asks “You wanna race?”

    The mother comes over and gently nudges her child away from my child saying “It’s ok. Let’s go play over here. Let’s leave him alone.”

    The kid asks “Why?”

    The mom says “It’s ok. Shhhh. Come on.”

    And I look at her with the half-angry half-puzzled “Really?” look. And they walk away before I can turn it into a teaching moment like I usually do.

     She basically just dismissed my child. I also get the same reaction from my family. My son isn’t invited to family functions but my daughter is. They take my daughter with them to have fun and never once mention my son. Or me for that matter. It hurts because it feels like once he was diagnosed with autism he wasn’t really a “real” member of the family anymore. They don’t even try to get to know him. I know that they are the ones who are missing out. My son is so awesome! I am the lucky one. If they don’t want to spend time with us then it is their loss.

     I work with kids all day – either I am actually at work  – a job that involves lots of kids all the time – or I am at home with my two little dumplins. Either way, I have way more kid conversations than adult ones. WAAAY more.

     So if you ask me what that mom should have done, here is my answer:

     At the point when her son asked my son if he wanted to race she should have acknowledged my child as someone who is aware and who likes to have fun just as much as the next guy. Instead she did the opposite – she disregarded him and dismissed him. Luckily my son usually isn’t paying attention anyway, and I am sure he thinks people are totally strange so he isn’t phased by their dumb behavior. But I am.

     Usually my son stands out as the oddball since his behavior doesn’t fit into most people’s little cookie cutter idea of how kids behave. Though they can spot that he is different, most still cannot identify that he has autism. Usually I throw out  the “He has autism” as I run by chasing him since I can feel all the “Why can’t she control her kid?” looks.

     I am always happy to answer questions to help you better understand my son. Don’t forget – there are no stupid questions, just stupid people.

     So in this instance, if the boy’s mother can tell that my son is different but is not sure what his disability is she can ask me something like “Does your son want to race with my son?” Or better yet, ask my son directly “Do you want to race?” Or she could just quietly observe and listen since her son started this conversation, not her.  

     This does two wonderful things. It shows that she is not going to just disregard him and shoo her child away from him. And it shows that she is interested to know if he wants to play. It is also a nice veiled way of asking “So what exactly is wrong with your kid?”

     And now that she has opened up an opportunity for conversation instead of just avoiding us, I can chime in and explain my son to her child the way that she should have.

     I can say – “I don’t know if he wants to race. He might want to race with you. He doesn’t talk yet but he can still play with you. He has autism, and that means that his brain works a little differently than yours, but he is still the same as you in a lot of ways too. He just doesn’t talk and doesn’t listen very well yet either. But he loves to run and play just like you do.”

     Then my son isn’t treated like a poison on the playground to avoid. And the little boy understands autism a little bit now since it was actually explained to him instead of just being brushed off with an “It’s ok. Leave him alone.” And most parents are amazed at how much their kids know about autism, and how they often times have a kid in their class or a friend on the playground who has autism. Remember 1% of the kids have autism, so they are everywhere. 🙂

     For more info on how to be a good friend to someone with autism I recommend this book.


     It is written by Reno, an awesome kid who has autism and speaks publicly about understanding what it is like to have autism and how to be a friend to kids with autism.

       So how do you talk to a typical child about a child with autism? Well, first don’t underestimate how much your kid can understand and how accepting they are of differences in people.

     I hope you teach them to accept people for who they are. Simply explain that they are different, we are all different, and they still are the same as you —  just different. 🙂

    How do you treat someone with special needs? The same way you treat anyone else. Look past their disability. Look at the person inside, the person in there that is just like you and me. No pitiful smile, no awwwwww, no looking away or brushing them off — just treat them like people. It’s really not that hard when you think about it. People feel awkward cause they are focusing on what makes them different instead of what makes us all the same.


4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. suzy
    Jan 18, 2011 @ 15:28:17

    You make a very good point Jess about how kids are way more understanding about things than parents think they are. I believe this is partly because parents and adults in general have lots biases and notions of how people are an such. Kids learn racism and the like from their parents just by modeling their behavior. They can learn tolerance and acceptance the same way.

    I also think that most adults want to avoid confrontation and aren’t sure what to do in those situations. The other parent (being you in this example) might fly off the handle at them if they ask questions. Not all parents are you, and not all parents will turn the situation into a teaching one. Well not a positive teaching one, anyway. So they avoid the potential hostility. Is it right? No!

    I’m glad you posted this. It gives people a peek into your side of the situation. Whether Sam is aware of it or not, he is still affected by it.


  2. nacole
    Jan 18, 2011 @ 17:52:38

    Jess your such a great mom! I know your son is very smart 🙂 and have parents like you two he will succeed in everything .. I have a autism cousin and when I was little it all ways bothered me seen Parents giving him weird looks or pushing their children away.. like he’s a disease or a virus and see the children that wanted to talk and play with him upset cause the parents are so cold hearted at some times and other just don’t understand how to act .. I’m glad i understand and have knowledge about autism. I wish people would understand not to pitty the children or parents .. Just treat them like a child.. and I would like to say I have never seen or heard of a true “normal” child
    well I just wanted to say how much you truly inspire people 🙂 and I feel blessed to know your son and of course you guys too 🙂


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