How to talk to your child about developmental differences

At some point, it’ll happen—as a parent, you’ll have to talk about developmental differences with your child. Maybe a new classmate will have a physical or intellectual disability, or your family will see someone in a wheelchair, or it’ll come up on TV. (Sesame Street recently introduced a new Muppet, Julia, who has autism, so maybe it already has!) It might not be a comfortable conversation—after all, even talking about developmental differences among adults can feel awkward at times—but it’s a necessary one when raising compassionate kids. Here’s what you should keep in mind.

1. Use the Right Words

Your child will speak about developmental differences the same way that you do, so be sure to use inclusive language that’s up-to-date.

“When we talk to parents who’ve received a diagnosis, we have to be careful about word choices. We always talk to them from a place of positivity,” says Sasha Delgado, manager of the preschool speech and language program at Macaulay Child Development Centre, a United Way agency that supports children and their families in Toronto.

That’s the ideal way to talk to your kids about a friend or classmate’s developmental difference, too, says Delgado. Explain that certain terms can make people feel left out and unhappy, and that using the right words helps you avoid hurting their feelings.

2. Focus on Ability

Terri Hewitt, vice-president of developmental services at Toronto’s Surrey Place Centre, which serves children and adults with developmental disabilities, also thinks it’s a good idea to emphasize abilities. “I advise parents to highlight what a person can do rather than focusing on what they can’t,” she says.

Hewitt often talks to elementary school children about cognitive differences and always starts with a general discussion about what makes each person special, making sure to highlight positive traits rather than negative ones.

When you’re talking to your kids at home, follow Hewitt’s lead. Start the conversation by asking your kids what makes them unique, and have them identify their own physical abilities and personality traits. Then, if your child has a classmate or friend with an intellectual disability, talk about challenges he or she might have with learning, whether its reading, doing math or speaking up in class.

3. Encourage Compassion

After you’ve talked about some of the challenges that developmental differences can cause, it’s important to emphasize the importance of empathy. First, talk to your children about their own strengths and weaknesses; then help them see that they’d want help from others in areas where they struggle, too.

Delgado says that when it comes to children, it’s important to remember that progress is always possible, so long as adults play to their strengths.

Hewitt adds that separating cognitive skill from personality is also helpful. Being a kind, thoughtful and helpful person has nothing to do with a person’s developmental differences. By considering the way you talk to your child about people with disabilities, you might find that you’ll change the way you think about them as well.

For more information and resources, visit Macaulay Child Development Centre, which specializes in helping all children reach their full potential. Services include early education, literacy and support for kids with special needs and their families.

Changemakers to watch: Dr. Meb Rashid

Meet Dr. Meb Rashid. He’s the medical director of Toronto’s only in-hospital refugee clinic who has dedicated his career to serving “the world’s heroes.” With his lean, but mighty team, Meb is changing the way care is delivered in the city—and ensuring a refugee’s new life in Canada begins with a healthy start.

Meb

WHO: Meb has been at the helm of Women’s College Hospital’s Crossroads Clinic—which he also helped establish—since 2011. Since then, his team has provided crucial care to nearly 2,000 refugees while helping them effectively navigate a new health-care system in an entirely new country. But Meb’s impact on refugee health extends far beyond Crossroads Clinic’s walls. He’s been a go-to source for connecting newcomers with social services agencies—including United Way–supported COSTI and Access Alliance—to provide access to the wide-ranging supports needed to settle and integrate into a new community. He was also on the steering committee of Canadian Collaboration for Immigrant and Refugee Health (CCIRH) and has even brought together clinicians in a common cause of caring through refugee-focused health networks.

WHY: Meb, who immigrated to Canada from Tanzania when he was young, says he has the “best job in the city” working with newcomers. And we wholeheartedly agree with the importance of his work. Providing timely, accessible supports—include trauma counselling and  language services—to newly-arrived refugees and immigrants is a vital part of United Way’s work helping individuals settle and integrate. “Refugees are an amazing group of people to work with,” he says. “Many have lived through horrific issues, but they arrive in Canada with the desire to put their lives back together. It’s a testament to human resilience.” So then it’s no surprise Meb has made it his personal mission to meet with refugees soon after they arrive in Canada—building trust with patients to ensure their health remains a top priority despite juggling the demands of settling in a new country. For example: finding employment, enrolling children in school or navigating the transit system. The result: newcomers avoiding obstacles they would normally face—from unnecessary emergency room visits to language barriers. In large part due to a dedicated staff with training in tropical medicine and infectious disease, as well as knowledge of the refugee immigration process. “Keeping people healthy helps facilitate their integration,” adds Meb. “It’s essential to starting a new life in Canada.”

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Dr. Meb Rashid with the Crossroads Clinic team.

WHAT’S NEXT: Meb is excited about the future of Crossroads. Not only is the clinic having an impact on the lives of newcomers, but it’s giving emerging practitioners invaluable experience as a leading teaching setting. “We’re starting to produce research that allows us to guide other clinics in the community that perhaps don’t see refugees in the same numbers we do,” explains Meb. “We’re hopeful this evidence will help other physicians better serve refugees and their nuanced needs in a more precise way.” This invaluable insight will undoubtedly help physicians and social service providers alike better understand and respond to the important issues that confront refugees and immigrants.

Want to support United Way’s work making change possible for newcomers and refugees in our communities? Donate today.