Lessons From a Typical Mom
As promised, this is my follow up post for all those well meaning adults out there who want to teach their children (and learn themselves) about how to act or not act around atypical kids. (For me, I like to say I have 3 typically developing children and 1 atypical child. This is not a catch all term, and not something I have to use a lot, but it’s my favorite one for making the distinction if I have to.)
Also, before I go on, I want to make sure it’s clear that these lessons and guidelines are coming from me. I don’t speak for the entire community of kids and parents that find themselves in this particular category I’m writing about. And with any type of allyship (reading this with good intentions makes you an ally against ableism) do more of your own research and work on how to do it right. There are numerous authors and activists out there doing and writing good things about inclusion. Find them! Reading and sharing this is a great step, thank you.
So let’s dive in, shall we?
Adults, don’t ask “what is wrong with your kid” or any version of this question to a parent. I know you’re curious and dying to know. But don’t ask. First of all, the child you’re asking about can hear you. How would you feel if someone asked what is wrong with you? To someone else? While you were standing there? Awkward, right? And maybe the parent has no idea how to answer your question. Because I guaran-damn-tee the first thing they will think is, uh, nothing. We see our child as our child first and all the things that make them different are always second. We love and appreciate those things that make them different and special, but sometimes a stark reminder, in the middle of a grocery store aisle that our child is different than the rest, might be painful.
It may seem like a harmless question by asking, “What kind of disability does he have?” But you’ve also just rooted up years of doctors and specialists and lab work involving blood draws and MRI scans and tests and medical professionals hemming and hawing, trying to label your baby and put him in a particular box so the insurance company will know what number to assign to your baby boy, a label, a diagnosis, a big sticker on a chart that says WHAT IS WRONG WITH HIM. But to the parent, he is perfect and whole and has made her life infinitely better. Maybe the parent who you just asked, “Is he on the spectrum?” has spent the last 5 years trying to figure out why he doesn’t talk, and still doesn’t have a whole lot of answers, so she chooses to see progress over lack. He didn’t walk until he was 3, but now, at 5 ½, he runs. He sprints with this half-gallop that brings him so much joy. She learned years ago to stop shedding tears and to stop worrying.
What is a milestone? It becomes completely arbitrary in the world of different. That mom. The one you asked if her son has the same disability as your granddaughter (he doesn’t), that mom chooses to focus on all the ways her disabled son has learned and progressed, not on what is limiting. So if you meet a stranger who seems to have a child that is different and you’re bursting at the seams to find some common ground, because you really do want to be an ally, a quiet nod and smile will do wonders. I had a woman lean into me once, after I sat in an exhausted heap with Spencer at a children's museum, and simply whispered, “You’re doing a good job.” Then she walked away with a small squeeze at my elbow. It was the best thing from a stranger I have ever heard.
Phew! Take a deep breath. I know you are scanning your life right now and wondering if you’ve ever done any of these things. Because I know most people are well-meaning. I get that. And if you have, don’t worry. That’s what learning and growing is. We learn, we grow, we do better.
Now. Let’s talk about your kids asking that question! Kids are these darling little molds of clay, just fresh faced about this big world and it’s 100% different when a child asks, “What is wrong with them?” than when an adult does it. It’s going to happen, and it’s on us as adults to frame this experience in a positive way.
If this happens to you, stay calm and don’t shush and rush. I think the worst thing we can do as parents when our children ask about someone with disabilities is immediately shame them for even asking. Don’t scold them into silence and run away from the situation. Because now they think the person they are asking about is taboo and scary and wrong. I have a few helpful suggestions. (From my small perch of experience.)
Praise the curiosity and answer honestly. “That’s a great question Sally, I’m really not sure.” (Because you don’t. Even when you think you do, you don’t.)
Help them define what they might be seeing. “Are you asking me that because they are in a wheelchair/walking different than you/talking different than you?”
Teach them people are different. Simple as that. “Well my darling, not everyone walks like you do.” “Not everyone talks the same way you do.” “Not everyone….”
Now. WHAT IF THE PERSON HEARD WHAT YOUR CHILD SAID? You’re mortified, right? Don’t be. Kids get the pass, because unless they are teenage jerks sitting in a donut shop, they really don’t know better and it’s such a great learning opportunity. The biggest suggestion I can offer in this situation is to find common ground and have the kind of small talk you would with any stranger in a grocery store.
“Hello, this is Sally. She’s four. She’s my best helper at the grocery store. She’s helping me pick out bananas, she loves bananas, don’t you Sally? She has one every morning for breakfast.”
Or if the person Sally asked about was a child:
“Hello, this is Sally. She’s four. How old are you?” or “Hello, this is Sally. She loves popcorn, is that why you’re in this aisle too?”
Now little 4 year old Sally sees that her mother is talking to this person, who is very different than her, the exact same way she would talk to someone who is just like her! Her mother didn’t talk slower or louder, she just...talked. And later, when you're alone and can look her in the eye you can talk about how different is OK and beautiful and no matter what someone looks like, sounds like, acts like, it's important to be kind. Above all else, be kind.
I know there are more places in the world than the grocery store, but for some reason, I’ve heard some whoppers in the grocery store. So hopefully you can apply my little scenario to any situation you might find yourself in. And I am way over the random word limit I set for myself with these posts. I’m going to sign off with the invitation to ask any and all questions you might have for me about this topic. You can do it openly in the comments or you can email me privately. I’m happy to be a resource for this topic with the understanding, I am one mother with one child in a world full of people who have stories and lessons to share. Find them. We are all better and live richer lives because of our differences, not in spite of them.