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.

Yes, I have my kid on a leash. And I know what you are thinking. I used to think the same thing about people with their kids on a leash.

     Back when I was a know-it-all nanny/preschool teacher I had it all figured out. I knew that when I had kids of my own my child would not be sucking a pacifier after the age of 2. My kids would listen to me and respect me and would not whine. And I would never ever put my child on a leash. 
     I mean, who does that? It’s a child not a pet. I can understand a child with special needs benefiting from a harness, but this child is obviously fine. He doesn’t seem to be mentally disabled, I see no obvious disability. So the only reason I can think that this child is leashed is because the mom is obviously a weirdo. Just take the time to watch your kid, and teach them about danger — don’t put them on a LEASH! Seems inhumane if you ask me, the poor child being pulled around on a leash. What is wrong with that mother?
     And so here I am. Almost ten years have gone by since I was a nanny or worked in a preschool. My kids whine —  A LOT!  My daughter had an extreme pacifier addiction and sucked on one until she was well over the age of 3. Until I noticed that it was actually moving her teeth, then we finally had to get a visit from the “Binky Fairy”. The Binky Fairy took all the binkies (aka pacifiers) and replaced them with money, but it was still months before my daughter stopped crying for one. 
      And … my kid is on a leash.
He is staring at the stream going under the bridge. I bet he could watch that stream all day.
                                                          My kid on a leash enjoying the fireworks 🙂
      My 6-year-old son has autism. One of the most common things I hear after I tell people that is “He doesn’t look like he has autism.” And then I have to explain autism and all that stuff. So to explain why he doesn’t “look” like he has autism you can read my other post “He doesn’t look like he has autism” and to understand what autism is I have just the post for that too – it’s called What exactly is autism? How did you know he had autism?
       My son has no concept of danger. He will run in front of a car, he will run into a lake or a pool even though he can’t swim, he would probably jump off a balcony without a second thought. His receptive language skills are not that great yet. Receptive language is the ability to understand what you hear, to comprehend spoken words, follow directions, etc. He is getting better, but it is still like I am speaking another language sometimes. He just doesn’t understand what I am saying. So I can say “Watch out for cars, stay off the road, watch out for water, STOP!, don’t eat that, be careful” and all that stuff until I am blue in the face — and he will simply not understand what I am saying.
     I get invited to a party with a bonfire and all I can think is that there is a 97% chance my son will end up in the fire. When a car zooms by us I think of what would happen if I didn’t have him by the hand or if he got away from me and darted into their path. At the park I can’t take my eye off of him for a second because he will climb the fence and run away, into the road, into the lake, into an alligator’s mouth,  you name it – any dangerous scenario you can imagine is one my son would walk right into without a second thought.
     I can’t predict his behavior very well. When we get home he gets out of the car and walks to the front door. I usually hold his hand to make sure he doesn’t run, but usually he just walks to the door anyway since he is happy to be home. So one day I had my hands full. I let him out of the car and assumed he would walk to the front door like he always does. But nope. No luck. He ran as fast as he could right past me and into the road, then down the road three houses before I could catch him. I drive myself batty thinking of the what ifs …. what if there had been a car coming. I am consumed by the thought of something happening to him. And just when I think he is getting better, he runs away from me again. When I yell “STOP!” he runs faster.    
      He got away from me at the zoo once and I thought he was going to make it to the exit and into the road. I ran as fast as I could and tripped and fell. I bashed my head on an ice cream machine, threw my back out, skinned my knee, and still managed to catch my kid. It’s amazing how many thoughts I had when I hit my head.
     First I thought – “Man, I hope I don’t get knocked out” then I noticed I was still conscious so I thought “Gotta catch the kid” and I grabbed him by his shirt and then thought “Where’s my daughter?” then I saw her and thought “Oh man I am hurt!”  — all seemingly before I hit the ground. Then people crowded around me and asked if I was ok. I was just embarrassed and wanted to crawl into a hole. Of course the zoo staff went into action with the accident report etc. and offered me free passes but I said I was fine, and I am a zoo member so free passes do me no good. Though looking back I should have just taken them anyway and re-gifted them.
    Anyway, long story short — my kid needs to be on a leash. For his safety and mine.
    And he LOVES his harness. 🙂
     My children have taught me many things. I thought I was an accepting, open-minded person. But I was very judgemental. I assumed I knew things I didn’t. My son has taught me to never judge, because you never know what someone’s personal struggles are.
    So if you see a child on a leash, instead of assuming the parent is an idiot try to  assume that they have a very good reason for needing the kid on a leash. 😛
    If you need a harness, or know anyone who does, I recommend you get it from Children’s Harnesses by Elaine. I have no personal connection to her so this is not just a shameless plug. I am just really happy with the quality of the harness, and after searching the internet for days I feel I really did find the best harness out there. It is strong and durable but still nice and soft. She hand makes them specific to your child (or adult’s) size. My son loves wearing it, he loved it from the moment I put it on him because it gave him freedom he isn’t used to having. I always have to lead him by the hand since he could run off at any moment. He loves being able to walk “on his own”. 🙂

January 2020
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