How to Explain a Disability to a Child

By Michele C. Hollow @michelechollow
September 21, 2017

Have a conversation with your child and emphasize the differences and similarities between someone with a disability and someone without one.

Sharon Carter knows firsthand that children say things that sometimes sound hurtful; often, they’re innocently asking questions so they can understand the situation.

Her 10-year-old daughter has Down syndrome, and young children often ask, “What’s wrong,” “Why does she act a certain way,” and “Why is she doing that?”

“I’m used to it,” Carter said. “I look at each question as a teaching moment. Explaining a disability to a child is important. Kids are curious and ask a lot of questions. They see someone different from them and want to understand why.

“Many of my friends get asked about their child’s disabilities. In addition to explaining what the disability is, we need to explain how children with disabilities and those without have similar likes and dislikes.”


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The first thing she emphasizes is that the differences can be positive. “Some kids and adults feel uncomfortable when they see a child in a wheelchair or one who has trouble talking,” she said. “I address those differences and explain how we all have strengths and weaknesses. With my child, I tell others that it takes my daughter a bit longer for her to learn things at school. She’s smart in her own way and can be very funny. She makes others laugh, and that’s her strength.”

Carter also explains to those who ask how much alike her daughter is to someone without a disability. “I talk about feelings, which we all have,” she said. “I ask the child questions about her likes and dislikes. Often I can find something she has in common with my daughter. My child and other children love playing video games. By shining a light on the similarities, the disability falls to the background.”

Carter is often asked if her child is sick. “It’s quite common,” she said. “I explain that the disability is not an illness and that it’s not contagious. There’s a boy in my daughter’s class who uses a tablet to talk. He has cerebral palsy, which is a disability, not an illness. I tell children that they can’t catch a disability.”

Carter has mostly been fortunate in her dealings with non-special needs children and their parents. Other parents of children with special needs have come across impolite children and adults.

“The playground can be a tough place,” another mom said. “My child has been called dumb, and often parents ask stupid questions.”

It takes a lot of patience. “My husband often responds with humor,” the mom said. “He can be sarcastic, and his humor can put a lot of people in their place.”

Not everyone is funny. Often a direct approach is the best way to explain a disability to a child. When Carter explains disabilities to children, she carefully chooses her words. “Words really make a difference,” she said. “It’s okay to say ‘autism,’ ‘Asperger’s,’ and ‘Down syndrome.’ It’s not name calling or hurtful, that would be unacceptable.”

Carter has two children. She does a lot of educating at her son’s school by bringing in age appropriate books about children with special needs. “At my son’s public school, we don’t have many kids with special needs,” she said. “I bring my daughter to his softball games. People in the school and in the community see her.”

When people don’t understand or are not around children with special needs, they don’t always understand what to say or how to act. “That’s why is important to explain disabilities to children and their parents,” she said. “These teaching moments are so important.”


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February 27, 2020

Reviewed By:  

Janet O’Dell, RN