When Your Typical Child Notices Mine is Different, Please do this One Thing

Dear Parent,

Did your child notice that mine is different? Maybe we saw you on the playground and he didn’t know how to react when Grace got a little too close before saying “hi!”. Maybe Grace is in your child’s class, and they came home mentioning that she wears headphones when she gets overwhelmed by the noise and activity in gym class. Maybe your child saw Grace shaking her hands and humming at the grocery store, as she was trying to decompress from a long, over-stimulating day.

Can I ask a favor of you? Even if you’re embarrassed by that, even if you don’t feel equipped to have a grand discussion about valuing differences, even if my daughter’s differences make YOU feel slightly uncomfortable, too, please do this one thing: please don’t stay silent. Please don’t shush you child or pull them away or do things that corroborate their thoughts that different is somehow wrong. Please start by teaching them that different is ok, even valuable, and, even better, spend a little bit more time explaining why.

I’ll let you in on a secret. You’re not the first to notice her differences. Grace was less than 18 months old when a little girl approached us in a doctor’s office waiting room, thrust her finger toward Grace’s face and inquired, “Was she born like THAT!?” And while we’ve had many more positive encounters over the years, there have been several negative ones. A recent incident involved a peer making negative comments about Grace within earshot of our younger daughter, who was just devastated by it.

Honestly, unless you’ve experienced something similar with your child, you truly cannot imagine the pain and grief these encounters cause. You can’t. But here’s something you can do: talk to your child about it. When your child (or you) doesn’t know how to react to my child, start by saying hello. Ask her name (if she hasn’t already asked yours). Here’s an idea: talk to her like a person, one who like all of us is wonderfully unique and unquestionably worthy of acceptance and kindness.

When your child comes home from school surprised that my daughter had a bathroom accident, remind them that everyone develops at their own rate. Age has just as little to do with how fast you are as it does with ability to use the bathroom. Both depend on size, muscle tone, and overall health – all things that can be impacted by Down syndrome and other disabilities. 

When your child tells you that my daughter asks the same questions repeatedly in her voice, which can be difficult to understand, can you challenge them to include her anyway? Kindness can be as simple as saying hello, smiling, giving a compliment, sharing a fist bump, sitting next to her at lunch, or inviting her to play on the playground.

If your child says something negative or critical about my daughter, can you please call them out for it? Please ask them to think about how they would feel if someone else talked to them that way. Describe differences that are found in all of us – even within our own families- and how those differences enrich our lives.

If your child has questions you can’t answer, ask me. Seriously. The more children know about something, the more likely they are to be understanding and accepting. Consider reading and discussing some books about differences or about Down syndrome. Once they are able to better understand and look past her differences, people are able to focus on all of the things that really make Grace her – a delightful, kind, empathetic, funny kid who fiercely loves music, dancing, and her family.

Dressing your kids in clothes with trendy sayings about kindness is easy. But please don’t stop there. Your actions now are far more important than you know. The lasting impacts of how your child perceives mine will directly affect her throughout her life. Ultimately, when it comes to employers being willing to offer jobs to people with disabilities, our children may be on opposite sides of the table someday. Please talk to your child now so that my child will be able to live the fulfilling life of inclusivity, opportunity, and happiness that she deserves, now and in the future.

It means more than you know,

Heather

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