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.