Five Tips for Interacting with a Person with Special Needs

People often say that they don’t know how to interact with a person with special needs. Here are some tips:

1. Treat Them Like Any Other Human Being

Special needs or not, people are just people. Treat them the way you would want to be treated, and the way you would treat anyone else. If you see a person with special needs, smile, say hi, or wave. Go over and introduce yourself and your children. Be friendly. Invite them to join you in your activities. People with special needs are just regular people. You don’t need to be nervous or do anything different than you would meeting anyone else for the first time.

2. Talk TO the Person, Not About Them

Having special needs doesn’t mean someone is stupid or that they don’t have something to say. Don’t ask the parent or caregiver, “How old is he?” Rather, ask the person directly, “How old are you?” Talk directly with the person rather than with someone who may be with them. How would it make you feel if someone was standing right in front of you and asking someone else questions about you like you weren’t even there? Imagine if people meeting you for the first time just assumed you weren’t capable of understanding what they were saying, or assumed you weren’t able to communicate, based solely on how you looked. Or imagine how isolating it would be if you did have difficulty communicating, and how much worse it would feel if no one even tried to talk to you, but rather talked ABOUT you, like you were invisible. Just talk to a person with special needs like you would with anyone else.

3.Set An Example

As a parent, you model appropriate behavior for your children, good or bad. Every time you don’t reach out to a person with special needs, or ignore or don’t include them, you teach your children to do the same. Rather, teach your children that it’s not only easy, but important, to include people who may have differences. Especially those with extra challenges. Help your children realize that just because someone has difficulties, doesn’t make them scary or weird. Isn’t that what you would want for your own child? For people to reach out and include them and be kind, even if, and maybe especially if, they struggle with something? Your children will follow your lead. Show your children that it’s important to reach out, and that it’s easy to make friends with someone with special needs.

4. Talk About Regular Things, Not About Their Diagnosis

How would you feel if everywhere you went people talked about your diagnosis like it was the only thing there was to you? Instead of “Hi, how are you? What do you like to do?,” they say “I see he has diabetes. My cousin has diabetes. Diabetes people are so wonderful. Does he have high functioning diabetes or low functioning?…” It’s as inappropriate as it sounds, and yet that’s exactly what we do to people with special needs. Instead of talking to my son like a regular person, we get versions of these diagnosis-based conversations every day. Don’t make the conversation about a person’s diagnosis. Their diagnosis doesn’t define them. Just have a regular conversation about regular things.

5. Don’t Talk Down To Them

There is a tendency to assume that because a person has special needs, or does not talk, that he or she is not smart. And that is simply not true. Don’t talk down to people who have challenges, or treat them like they’re unintelligent or can’t understand. Don’t talk loud or slow (unless specifically requested), or use baby talk. It’s condescending. Some people with special needs may have trouble with expressive language, but absolutely understand every word you say. And not being able to talk isn’t the same as not being able to comprehend. Use language that treats people with special needs with the same respect you would extend to others.

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As you can see, it’s easy to interact with someone with special needs. All you have to do is just act, talk and be your regular self. So next time you encounter someone with special needs, go make a new friend! ©

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