For parents, caregivers, and family members of children with a disability, it can be hard to deal with other peoples’ reactions to public behaviors. Some of the reactions your child might have may be considered socially inappropriate, such as outbursts, tantrums or meltdowns.
When a child is having a hard time dealing with a stressful situation in public, people may look your way. At these times it helps to remember that sometimes these people understand children with disabilities and want to find a way to help you, or offer a supportive comment. Assume the best, unless you have a definite reason to assume otherwise.
But the unfortunate reality is that some people stare and make rude comments. This only makes it harder for parents trying to comfort an upset child. Sometimes we are in a calm state of mind and can help educate the person who has made the inappropriate remark. But at other times it can make us so angry that we want to respond with our own inappropriate comment. Both kinds of reactions are normal and to be expected.
When our kids get older and may be able to understand the comments or notice the stares, we start to worry about how it affects them and their self-esteem. But there are ways we can calm ourselves and help our children in the process.
Ignore the ignorance
One thing we can do is to remind ourselves that the person staring or making rude comments has never met our child and only sees her for her disability, not for who she truly is as a person.
Try to remember that people often speak before they think. Remind yourself that the other person’s words or actions do not reflect on your child or your parenting skills. Their reaction stems from their ignorance about children with disabilities. Most of the time, the best response is to ignore the person and redirect your child’s attention.
Opportunities for teachable moments
Another strategy is to use the event as a moment to teach the person and advocate for your child. Some possible examples are. “My child has autism. She’s doing her best, but she’s having a hard time with the noise in here,” or “My child is doing her best, but she has a language delay and doesn’t understand what you are asking.”
If you choose to go this route, stay calm and avoid being confrontational—an escalation is the last thing you or your child needs.
After you are away from the person or situation, use the time as a teachable moment for your child, too, if possible. Some examples might be: “The lady at the park had lots of questions. She was trying to understand why you were upset,” and, “I told her you needed some time to calm down.” This will help your child learn how to educate people about her disability. It can also help her learn not to take things personally.
And if you are one of those passersby, please take the time to look at the whole child. Look past the behavior and see the child and the parent who are doing their best in a very trying situation.