How to Explain Developmentally-disabled People to My 6 Year Old

Updated on March 12, 2010
S.P. asks from Chicago, IL
11 answers

I feel a bit silly having to ask advice on this one, because I grew up with two developmentally disabled siblings! But in the past couple months my 6 year old daughter and I have encountered several D.D. or disfigured kids and adults. She knew something was different and asked, and I found myself searching for the right words and hoping I'd said the most honest, yet sensitive things. I'm just wondering how some of you have explained this part of life to your kids. Thanks!

1 mom found this helpful

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answers from Indianapolis on

My response is very much in line with Denise P's.

We have the same situation in our family where our 3.5 year old is beginning to ask questions. He has a developmentally disabled uncle, and will soon realize there's a difference between this uncle and his others.

We're an honesty is the best policy kind of family. We took that approach when I was diagnosed with cancer and have stuck with it. We'd probably explain it similarly to why he has light brown hair and his sister's is black - why some kids are really good at counting and others are good at reading.

But, I think all people agree (you probably had this situation in your family) that people with DD are gifts in our lives and teach us things we'd probably never learn under normal circumstances.

Good luck.

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answers from Pittsburgh on

My son is turning 7 and we've had these conversations. He was fascinted by a middle age man w/Downs at a community parade b/c the man was catching candy, etc. like the kids. I referred to a few Downs kids he know from school and said that man was very similar to them...facial characteristics, etc. I explained that his mind has stayed more child-like than other adults.
As for wheelchairs, leg braces, guide dogs, etc., I just say "the wheelchair helps her move around because her legs are not as strong as yours...but look at her GO!" "That man uses a dog to help him walk around. He can't see so the dog helps him by seeing for him." I try to keep things brief and matter-of-fact. I try not to imply pity or say "Awww....he can't XYZ" but instead I keep it positive and point out how disabled people cope well with their disabilities.



answers from Chicago on

There is a book out called, It's Okay to be Different by Todd Parr. We are actually using it in our program to teach students about autism for Autism Awareness month. On the Todd Parr website he has activities that you can do after you read the book. Another thing you can do is to use an apple and an orange and make comparisons of differences and similarities. You can then use that conversation to teach about people.
We're all the different - that's what makes us the same!:}
R. Christiansen
Celebrate Differences



answers from Sacramento on

I just tell our son that not everyone is the same and that some people have disabilities. Our son has ADHD so I remind him that just like he has trouble focusing and controlling his energy, others might have trouble walking, talking or whatever the situation may be. I think you could just use a variation and say that some people have disabilities that make it hard for them to walk, talk, etc. but isn't it great that there are wheelchairs, walkers, etc. to help them because they want to do the same types of things she's able to do.



answers from St. Cloud on

I have nothing to add to your great responses, but I just wanted to say that your question is not at all silly! I worked with people with developmental disabilities for years and I wish more people talked to their kids and explained these things to them. GREAT JOB!



answers from Chicago on

wheel chairs are for people that have trouble walking
glasses are for trouble seeing
some people are born w/trouble thinking
some people are born and their brains work at a younger age than they are
people talk "funny" because every one talks different
everyone is a different color, different hair... "isn't that wonderful that we live in a world where everyone is different?"



answers from Chicago on

I have in the past worked with special needs children, and one good explanation I used with one of my special needs kids about another special needs child was that he was born different. The child I was with was deaf and mentally impaird, the child he saw had no lower jaw only skin and scar tissue up to the top lip. The deaf boy was very concerned and signed hurt! hurt! about the boy. At first I was at a lose for how to explaine so I just agreed. Then I saw the look on the boys face we were talking about. I realized just how wrong I was. I immediatly corrected myself and signed no I was wrong he is not hurt just born different. Once I explained how the boy I was with was deaf and mentally challenged the boy showed compassion and understanding. I have never forgotten that moment and have used that explanation with my own children. They are born different and have special needs but they are people of substance and quality and are loved just the same.



answers from Chicago on

My kids have been "exposed" (hate that word for this description) to people with different abilities since they were about 4 yrs old. My son attends Starlight foundation events for kids with life threatening illnesses. Some are in wheel chairs and some look like every other child, running around and you would have no clue there was a problem. One way to bring this up is to address your own family. If she has been with your siblings, I am sure she would have noticed any differences. Young children can be told in the simplest terms but make sure she understands that jsut because they are different does not mean there is something "wrong" with them. They just need special help in whatever way. Of course you can not give specifics for strangers but you can let her know that sometimes people have accidents or are born with disabilities and there are some you cannot see. As she grows older, you can expand the explanation.

There was one time we were waiting for an even outside and there were a few kids that had burn injuries, some with things like cerebral palsy and in wheel chairs and I heard a woman tell her son who looked like he was maybe 5 that he should stay away because you don't know what is wrong with the "kid in the chair". My son wanted to know why she was so mean.



answers from Chicago on

I always tell my son that God makes us all different and special. Some people may be able to run fast, others may be smart in school, others may have eyes or legs or brains that don't work as well. But as are all special and we are all people who need love and friendship.



answers from Cincinnati on

Most importantly I would be honest. Never make up something. I still remember knowing someone ~20 years ago who had polio and she said when she was standing in line she heard a little girl ask her mom “what’s wrong with her” and her mom said “She didn’t eat her vegetables” ?!?!?!?!? Obviously you do NOT want to say anything like that. There are a ton of children’s books about how people (animals, etc) are different from each other and to celebrate the diversity.
Some other tips maybe (these tips came from talking to your child about racism but I felt many of the tips apply across the board - ):
1) Don't be afraid to bring it up and talk about it.
2) Look for teaching moments. E.g. with children's books that discuss differences or, you can look for subtle openings in everyday life.
3) Make the message age-appropriate.
4) Accept that sometime “inappropriate” comments may happen -- and that doesn't mean your child is mean. If your kid makes a questionable remark, don't freak. "Children often repeat what they hear others say, and it doesn't necessarily mean that the child believes it," "Ask questions. 'What made you say....?' Gently dispute the stereotype or prejudiced attitudes. 'I've heard people say X about Y, but my experience with Y people is...' and give an example to dispute the stereotype."
5) Most importantly, be a role model. "The best way to reduce children's prejudices is to model an inclusive home, demonstrating that you have friends of all backgrounds," says Dr. Tatum. "Parents who have learned to lead multicultural lives, connecting with people different from themselves, are more likely to have children who develop those important life skills at an early age."

Other ideas – get involved with a volunteer project (maybe at a Good Will, summer olympics or a local community agency) – have her help choose were to spend time and learn about others
Good luck :)



answers from Chicago on

You received some great suggestions here, and I'm impressed that you are making this discussion a priority with your child. Honest, sensitive responses are always best. I especially like a previous poster's suggestion about getting books and pointing out subtle differences among the children in the book. Your child's not too young to join you for volunteer opportunities, if you're serious about helping your child grow in this area.

Have you heard of Temple Grandin? She's a woman who has autism and is a college professor. There's a movie about her (on HBO, I think) that she endorsed. I don't know if it is rated. I would consider watching it with my child and taking opportunities to check his understanding. The content could be confusing for a 6 year old, not sure about that. It's worth checking into... she has a fascinating story. (You may cry at points that only a parent could really understand. I suggest watching the movie before showing your child.)

Another suggestion is to consider the subtle language of calling someone "disabled" instead of "a person with...". It goes along with current legislation that requires us to consider the person first. People with disabilities are not their disabilities.

Good luck!

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