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Children With Special Needs: How To Explain Disability To A Child

14/08/2014 17:00 | Updated 20 May 2015

Children with special needs: How to explain disability to a child

I'm starting to believe this parenting lark is not all building sandcastles, making fairy cakes and getting nice cuddles. It seems we're also responsible for educating our kids about life, love and the universe, not to mention being the voice of reason when things aren't as straightforward as they could be.

My ability to be a grown-up was severely tested recently when I had to explain to my young daughter that she has a disability. Diagnosed with cerebral palsy at 18 months, Nancy is now seven and at an age where she's starting to question why she can't run as fast as her friends or why her hand doesn't work properly when she's colouring in.

Telling Nancy she was disabled was not your average mother and daughter conversation. But it was one which I had to get just right so that, hopefully, she'll understand and accept her condition without fear, worry or shame.

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I know it sounds rather dramatic, but I was acutely aware that I had my daughter's self-esteem in my hands - how I explain her disability to her now could potentially have an effect later in later life.

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"When talking to your child about their disability think about the level of information they need to know and give them the facts," says Naomi Richards, children's life coach and author of The Parent's Toolkit.

"The facts need to be age appropriate and at a level they will understand." Charlotte recently had a similar chat with her seven-year-old son who has hemiplegia. Talking in language he would understand, she explained to him that "his brain is like a computer and part of the control room is damaged which means some of the signals don't get through and the messages often get muddled, which is why his hand and foot are sometimes 'naughty'."

"For us we always went with the truth," says Sue, mother to Fletcher, 11, who has right-sided hemiplegia. "This was so the information was constant, whoever he spoke to."

While there is no right or wrong way to explain disability to your child, positivity and honesty is key.

"Explain to them how the disability will affect them and think about the questions they may have and pre-empt them with answers," says Naomi. "Let your child voice any fears and let them ask you any questions they may have at that time and going forward. The best time to do this is when you have time alone together without distraction."

Armed with advice from Scope, the cerebral palsy charity, Nancy and I sat down together one afternoon and I gently explained that while she was in my tummy something happened to the part of her brain that makes her right arm and leg work properly.

I told her that while it won't suddenly get better, the exercises we do will help her arm and her leg do the things they are supposed to do. I didn't want to get too technical and start telling her about the different procedures that she may have to face as she gets older. I wanted her to know that her 'wobbliness' had a name and that it was okay.

"I'm not sure there was a 'moment' when we explained disability to Eleanor," says Audrey, mother of 18-year-old Eleanor who has hemiplegia. "We just got on with it and, therefore, so did she."

As parents it's up to us to explain things simply and logically so that children understand, but without scaring or worrying them. It's important when explaining a physical or a learning disability to focus on your child's strengths.

As Kim, who has a son with dyspraxia, explained: "It's an ongoing process really. Every time a new issue came up we'd explain to him that although he's very good at some things, like maths for instance, other things, such as riding a bike, will be much harder for him. But we'd always be supportive and work together to find other ways to do things."

To be honest, I'm not sure what I expected Nancy's reaction to be but there were no tears, no tantrums, my gorgeous little girl just quietly asked if she can still go to ballet.

Over the months that followed different questions cropped up every now and then as her little head tried to fathom out what it all meant. Nancy is now seven and is a self-professed fountain of knowledge about cerebral palsy and, as a result, is very proud of her disability.

While I know that this might change and that there'll be other hurdles we'll have to overcome, especially when she reaches her teenage years, but right now I think this gives us a pretty good basis for the future.

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