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Say what?Every year, Jean Kirshner announces to the children gathered in a suburban Denver classroom, “You may have noticed that you have a special friend in your class…” It’s the same talk she gives every fall to her daughter’s classmates since Bella, now 10, started kindergarten. As the mother of a child with special needs, it’s a message she says cannot be heard too often.

Once Bella is out of the room with a teacher, Kirshner usually starts her talk but listing on posterboard the ways her daughter is different from her peers: Because of her cerebral palsy, Bella can’t ride a bike or climb on playground equipment. Kirshner then jots down how Bella is just like her classmates: She loves pizza, hates having her hair brushed, and more than anything, she wants friends. When Kirshner asks for questions, curiousity overtakes shyness and hands shoot up. “Will Bella have it forever?” “Does she like birthday parties?” Kirshner says there’s always relief in the kids’ eyes as they talk openly about something they never thought they could.

One of the hardest lessons for a parent to teach a child is what to say or how to act around a person with a disability—because most parents don’t know themselves. Too often, grown-ups cover their own discomfort with avoidance, which means that the first and lasting message most children get is a hissed: “Don’t stare!” Here’s what Kirshner and other mothers of kids with disabilities think parents of non-disabled kids should tell their children:

It’s ok to notice differences

Children with disabilities are different, so to pretend otherwise rings false. “It doesn’t have to be the elephant in the room. You can talk about it,” says Barbara Gaither, a mom from Columbus, Georgia, whose 10-year-old son, Scottie, has autism. She knows kids sometimes think they can’t be friends with a child who’s different because they don’t know how to play together. “The activities they do may be different, but they can still be friends,” Gaither says. You can say to your child, “Jill may not be able to ride her bike with you, but I bet there are other things she thinks are fun—why don’t you ask her?”

It’s ok to ask questions

Honest curiousity, even if it’s blunt, shows interest. Letting non-disabled children know this helps put them at ease around someone with a disability. Roxanne Eaton, a Columbus, Ohio,  mom, remembers when kids in the local children’s choir were given a chance to ask her 11-year-old daughter, Shannon, about her cerebral palsy:”Do your leg braces hurt?” “How do you go to the bathroom?” Afterward, when Shannon tried to slip in the back row where she usually stood, one little girl took her hand and brought her to the front row so they could stand together.

It’s ok to offer help

It isn’t diminishing or being condescending to someone with a disability if your child asks, “Can I open that?” or, “Do you need a push up the ramp?” Help can also come in the form of protection. Discuss with your child the importance of speaking up if he sees someone with a disability being bullied or teased. If he’s uncomfortable saying something, he can go stand by the other kid to show she’s not alone, and he can also go get an adult.

It’s ok to say the wrong thing

It’s better to put your foot in your mouth than say nothing at all, says Kirshner. If your kid stumbles, advise her to watch the body language of the listener, and if that person seems offended, ask for guidance. One thing you can suggest if to follow this rule of thumb: Put the person first and the disability second, says Lenora Billings-Harris, a professional speaker who guides organizations on inclusive language. In other words, aim to say, “a child with Down syndrome” rather than, “a Down syndrome child.”

The one thing parents of children with disabilities don’t want is pity. “Her disability is not a sad thing. It’s not a curse,” says Eaton. “It’s a challenge, yes, but there’s no way in the world that it’s a horrible thing.” Leslie Secrist, a Parker, Colorado, mom whose 13-year-old son Dylan has Down syndrome, adds that when people feel sorry for her or her son, it’s as if they’re saying their life is somehow less than other families’, which it’s not—it’s different. And that’s OK, which is an important lesson for any family.

In their own words

Wonder what kids with special needs wish other children knew? We asked ’em:

“You can play with me. I’m not contagious.”
—Shannon Eaton, 11, of Columbus, Ohio, who has cerebral palsy

“ I wish kids understood what autism is. Sometimes they just think I’m weird. I wish they would ask me to tell them what it’s like to be autistic.”
—Scottie Gaither, 10, of Columbus, Georgia, who has autism

“I feel just like you do. I want to be friends.”
—Dylan Secrist, 13, of Parker, Colorado, who has Down syndrome

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