“I don’t know how to talk to my kids about children with special needs” Expert Christine Haddad’s kid-friendly guide on what to say

“With understanding we can come closer to creating tolerant, accepting and inclusive environments for everyone. Different is not less.”
A big part of my role as an art therapist and RDI Program consultant is to educate parents on the experience of their children. I do this for several reasons:
  1. I need them to understand the internal struggle that their children are facing in order to better cater for their needs.
  2. By understanding their situation better, parents will be able to support their children to reach their fullest potential and to find the coping strategies that work best for them.
  3. I provide the parents with a very digestible and clear description that they could use to advocate for their child and themselves.

“A lot of the times I work with families that want to live typical lives with their children that have special needs and there are many factors that may stand in their way. They might feel embarrassed when out with their child because of the people staring, especially in the middle of a breakdown. We all know that if for one second our own children did something inappropriate in public we would immediately assert a, “Stop that immediately” attitude.”

child downPeople stare, point and might even be judging parents of children with special needs for not being able to “control” their child, especially those who have no or little understanding about children with special needs. There may be adults who understand and can sympathize with those parents, yet children are typically curious and will most likely ask questions and make comments that, although they are innocent, can be very hurtful. This is why advocation is tremendous. Beyond being able to identify their child’s experience to support them in making better decisions for themselves, understanding their child’s experience can help parents teach other parents who will then hopefully raise a better educated, accepting and tolerant generation.

Below are some of the most common descriptions I use, for the top four special needs – I try to make it as kid-friendly as possible. Bear in mind that not one individual with a diagnosis has the same experience as the next and these descriptions are very generalized and tend to lean towards more sever examples. 

  • AUTSIM SPECTRUM DISORDER: List all of the things that you hear. (Cars outside. Electricity buzzing. The fridge. People talking in the next room. Your breathing. Your clothes moving. etc.) List all of the things that you see. (The screen. The ad that’s moving. Someone moving near you. The light reflecting off of the table. The trees moving outside the window. The texture in the carpet. etc.) List all of the things that you feel. (The phone your hand. Your back on the chair. The hair on your shoulders. The food being digested in your belly. The temperature. etc.) These are just a few things that you might experience through only three of your senses. Imagine you experience them all at the same intensity and it is really difficult to focus on one thing. The whole world is attacking all at once! Taking it all in and making sense of it can take a lot of effort and even more time. Listening to one person’s voice and making sense of it and finding an appropriate way to respond can be an incredibly difficult task. Remember to be patient and considerate of all of the stimulus that could be attacking their nervous system all at once.
  • CEREBRAL PALSY: An article I once found while writing my thesis was written by an individual with CP who tried to explain their struggle by saying, “Imagine you’re trying to tie your shoe laces but there are oven mitts tied to your hands.” CP happens when their is a lack of oxygen flow to the brain for an extended period of time in the early years of child development. This lack of oxygen creates a “disconnect” with certain areas of the brain and the nervous system. As a result, the effected nerves are incapable of communicating with the brain and therefor are difficult to feel with and the corresponding muscles become spastic (tense). We use muscles to move, eat, look, digest. etc. The extent to which the child’s muscles and nerves are effected can range massively, but always remember that even if their body looks like it can’t do very much, that is no reflection on how powerful and useful their brains can be.
  • ATTENTION DEFICIT HYPERACTIVE DISORDER: A colleague’s client, who has ADHD once told him, “I have a Ferrari engine for a brain, but a tricycle for a body.” That is a wonderful depiction of what the experience of a child with ADHD might look like! In our brains we have neurons. They connect to help us think, make decisions and absorb the information around us. When we are not thinking of much and we are calm, the neurons are connecting to each other less. When we are thinking about a lot of things and also moving our bodies, the neurons are connecting a lot – it looks like a laser show in our brains! Those with ADHD have really excited neurons and so a lot of them are connecting a lot of the time. This makes it difficult for them to sit still (because the neurons could be telling the body to keep moving) or to concentrate on one thing at a time (because there are so many different neurons connecting all at once). Being allowed to fidget or take many breaks can help address the experience happening inside. Consider them not to be rude or uninterested when their focus keeps shifting, remember the laser party in their heads.
  • DOWN SYNDROME: In our blood we carry our genes, they are made up of 23 chromosomes that are the recipe for who we are; what we look like, how big we are, our colors and almost everything else that makes us physically us. People with Down syndrome were lucky enough to get a bit more of the 21st chromosome in their genes. This effects their physical appearance, but not all look exactly the same! Having Down syndrome will effect the physical traits of a person, but does not necessarily effect their cognitive ability, however, cognitive and intellectual disabilities often occur, but can be very mild or very severe. One thing is for sure, no one smiles wider than those with Down syndrome!

Each and every person, whether they have a special need or not, has something important to contribute and potential to succeed, but they must be given the chance. With understanding we can come closer to creating tolerant, accepting and inclusive environments for everyone. Different is not less.

17671371_10154931864580225_246370483_nChristine “Kiki” Haddad Zaynoun MPS ATR is an art therapist who received her bachelor’s degree in fine arts from the American University of Cairo in 2012 and her master’s degree in creative arts therapy from Pratt Institute in New York in 2014. Kiki is currently working as an art therapist and RDI© Program consultant at Therapeutic Approach to Growth in San Diego, CA. She worked at Imagine Academy for Autism and The League Education and Treatment Center in NYC as well as the Advance Society and the Learning Resource Center in Cairo, Egypt where she practiced art therapy and DIR® Floortime therapy with children and their parents with a wide range of special needs of ages 2 to 30. Kiki features in “Art Therapy: The Movie”, a documentary about art therapy across the globe and has written a chapter in the upcoming book “Art Therapy in the Middle East”. Kiki has 10+ of experience supporting those with special needs, which she is immensely passionate for. But also loves art, music, traveling and reading!

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