It seems like everywhere you turn, there is another article listing five, ten even twenty things that you should or shouldn’t say to parents of a child with special needs.
If you don’t believe me, go ahead and Google it. I just did and got 34 million results. Thirty-four million!
Am I really so terrifying, so sensitive, so different that people need 34 million suggestions about what to say and not to say when they talk to me?
No one worried about it when my first daughter was born.
But after Lil Z arrived and I became a special needs parent, it appears that people suddenly need extreme guidance before they can speak to me.
I will admit that most of these ‘how to’ articles offer some good advice, and I can relate to many of the situations, but I still dislike them.
They suggest that we’re all the same, when in fact we – and our children – are far, far from being anything like a homogeneous group.
Some parents have children who have no visible special needs whilst others of us cart around loads of medical equipment.
Some parents are just starting down the special needs route and haven’t yet come to terms with it, whilst others have deeply embraced the ‘new normal’.
Some want to educate and advocate; others just want to blend in.
And sometimes that parent in the park is having a terrible day and wants five minutes with their own thoughts
Whilst another might be suffering from the isolation of looking after their child and is desperate for conversation with another adult.
Special needs parents come in a vast array of abilities, attitudes, backgrounds, beliefs, religions, races, and nationalities – kind of like the rest of the world.
But, I can hear you shout in frustration, I just want to be able to have a chat with that other mum without saying the wrong thing.
Is it really that complicated?! To which I answer: no, no it’s not.
I can give you the definitive guide to talking to a parent of a child with special needs right now.
Yes, that really is all there is to it.
I know that people worry that they will say the wrong thing – and inadvertently say something offensive.
And in truth, the vocabulary of disability can be very complex.
But in truth, many parents of children with special needs are navigating this vocabulary right along with you.
Our children don’t come with a handbook and before they arrived, many of us had little contact with the world of special needs.
So we understand, and sometimes we get it wrong, too.
So we are usually willing to forgive, ignore or re-educate if we know that you are speaking in kindness.
I’ve had some people say things that taken out of context would be offensive, such as asking me if my other daughter “is normal”, but in context wasn’t meant unkindly.
Would you walk up to the mum of the playground nose-picker and ask “why is your kid doing that?”
Or perhaps turn to the dad of the child afraid to climb to the top of the slide and ask “what’s wrong with him?”
No? So, why would you start a conversation with me by asking what’s ‘wrong’ with my daughter?
Hopefully, your common sense will also tell you that all those lovely little sayings, so beloved of memes shared around Facebook, or the exclamation “I don’t know how you do it!” might not always be appreciated.
Not only that, but there is no good answer to these sayings – and if we’re having a conversation, participation by both parties is generally preferred.
This means I love to hear compliments about my girls – so why not start a conversation by telling me how beautiful Lil Z’s eyes are (they are), or how cute her t shirt is (it is) or how well-behaved her assistance dog in training is (he is… mostly).
It also means that although our children may have different abilities and challenges, we can still share a laugh about ridiculous parenting problems like exploding nappies or kids saying the darnedest things in the least appropriate places.
See, we’re really not that different after all.
So, the next time you’re at the park or a playgroup and you see that parent of a special needs child sitting there – go talk to them. You don’t need that long list of do’s and don’ts from the Internet. I promise.
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