By Nandini Minocha
A very odd title for an article isn’t it? I guess it’s not something most people think about. Unfortunately it is something that affects me and my life profoundly.
As a parent of an autistic child, I am often faced with situations where well meaning people around me flounder when they encounter certain types of behavior peculiar to the special needs world. So here is my little primer for all you wonderful people out there who would like to approach my world with sensitivity and kindness.
First let me put this in context. Autism itself is likely to affect 1 in 150 children today so almost all of us are either affected personally or come into contact with special needs kids through friends or family. Virtually all classes in public schools have one or more children who are challenged in some way. The aim of the educational system in California is to integrate special needs children as much as possible with regular kids to make them familiar with their day to day environment.
All of us strive for acceptance from our peers at some level and children with special needs are no different. They too yearn for acceptance, to belong and be useful, functioning members of society. But we have to remember they are the ones that are challenged and we need to help them, meet them half way.
This makes it very important to all of us to educate ourselves and our kids about what is the appropriate behavior when it comes to interacting with children with special needs and their parents.
1. The first and most important rule of etiquette is – never ignore or pretend the child doesn’t exist. That’s the default mode that we all employ and think we’re being tolerant. But you just looking the other way will make the child and family very uncomfortable. Don’t skirt the issue, address it. Acknowledge the elephant in the room.
2. It may be a small or huge adjustment to you based on your comfort level but if you can start with a look straight in the eye (instead of a fleeting , uncomfortable glance) and a smile on your face, you would have already built a big bridge to reach out to a child who could really use a friend. This communicates – I care and you are OK just the way you are.
3. At times you may see a child who is throwing a blue fit for no apparent reason. He may lie down inappropriately, scream, or cry. I have received stares of disapproval, shaking heads and accusatory looks as if I’m possibly responsible for child neglect or abuse. But you have to understand that this may be because things are not going his way or simply because he is overwhelmed or over stimulated with the situation at hand.
4. Should you encounter such a situation, don’t stare and walk by shaking your head. My child is acutely sensitive to the piercing glances of strangers even when he is in the middle of a meltdown. Ask if you can help. If you are told to stay away or your advances for help are refused, just smile at the child/mom/dad/care giver encouragingly and leave.
5. Inappropriate behavior may manifest itself in different ways – instead of lying on the ground throwing a tantrum a child maybe playing oddly, maybe grab food that you’re eating, he may be repeating meaningless phrases over & over again. What should you do? In all situations like this I’d say use common sense, be accepting, smile, be non judgmental. Both the child and the poor harried parent will be better off for it. The less self conscious the child feels, the more likely the situation is to resolve itself.
6. Don’t talk down to a special needs child under the assumption that just because he is behaving like a two year old, he thinks like one too. Autism is primarily a communication disorder and you will be surprised how bright, creative and thoughtful these children are. Autistic children who can barely talk or with poor motor skills have created beautiful pieces of literature. Communicate at an age appropriate level even if you don’t receive feedback to validate it.
7. The key is to treat these children with compassion, maybe the child will cheer up with your encouraging words or at least will not be as self conscious under your critical stare and will not feel the pressure to conform, and will feel accepted in spite of his faults.
8. Just accept them for who they are and love them no matter how they behave. You may be surprised to know that the seemingly most low functioning child who to you may appear non verbal or non responsive will understand that and relax around you.
What about the young kids /teenagers who don’t understand this strange behavior? Well, it is my belief that they take their cues from us as adults. If we take things in our stride, don’t over react, treat people with respect in spite of their differences, then so will they. A great example of this is my 9 year old younger son. He has been exposed to all kinds of people since he was little. He has met many a family that is similarly challenged. I have never seen a child more accepting than him. All of us adults could learn a thing or two from his empathy and non-judgmental approach to people.
Consider volunteering your child to be a buddy to a special needs child. In the crazy schedules our kids have, it may seem a lot but after a few weeks it’ll just seem so natural. This is the best way to teach our children to be kind and considerate and you will be doing an enormous kindness to the child you meet.
Each of us can make a difference and it’s not going to cost us money. All you have to give is to give of yourself, your humanity, and you will get back exponentially.
These are just my views and I would like to use this forum to start a dialogue. If any of you readers have a situation where you felt at a loss and could use input on how you could have handled it or a hypothetical question in your mind that’s holding you back from getting involved in a child’s life feel free to post your comments and I will certainly address them. And if you are in the special needs world and have something to share I would love to hear from you.