8 Ways to Teach Kids to Embrace Peers with Disabilities

As the mom of two kids who have overcome significant learning disabilities and one with Asperger’s Syndrome, Mighty Mommy shares tips for helping your child embrace and include their special needs peers.

Cheryl Butler
5-minute read
Episode #375

April is a month known for new beginnings. But it's also significant because it's Autism Awareness Month, which provides an opportunity to highlight the importance of support for research, early intervention, timely diagnosis, and appropriate treatment.

National statistics show an astounding one in 68 children in the United States is diagnosed with Autistic Spectrum Disorder. In addition, there are reported increased rates of intellectual disabilities, ADHD, learning disabilities, and fetal alcohol spectrum disorder. In fact, one in six children have a developmental disability.  

As the mom of kids with learning disabilities and Aspergers, I know both sides of raising a special needs child—helping a challenged child fit in and succeed amongst his regularly-developing peers as well as teaching other children to be accepting of those with special needs.

The National Center for Education Statistics reports that in 2015, one out of every four students (22%) was being bullied during the school year. However, there are plenty of kids who want to do the right thing and be accepting of their peers who have physical and learning disabilities. 

Tip #1: Explain What Special Is

For the record, I’ve never been a fan of the term “special needs” child. This stems from raising a child in the autistic spectrum, as well as being in the trenches with 2 significantly speech-delayed children 24/7 for the first few years of their lives. All kids are special, regardless of whether or not they have a diagnosis of some type, but it certainly is a kinder label than others that are out there. We should never assume that our kids know what a special needs or learning disabled child is. Parents and caregivers who are raising a child can provide age-appropriate knowledge and explanations that kids won’t necessarily get outside the home. It’s important that kids learn early on that no two people are born the same and that sometimes these differences are more noticeable. Kids need to understand that a disability is only one characteristic of a person. Everyone has strengths and challenges and wants and needs. Children with disabilities are like all children in that they want friends, respect, and inclusion.

They also need to know that children can be born disabled or become disabled from an accident or illness and that disabilities are not contagious. Most importantly, children with disabilities can do many of the things your child does, but it might take them longer. They may need assistance or adaptive equipment to help them.

Tip #2: Get to Know Parents of Special Needs Children

Most parents of children with disabilities would prefer that other adults ask them about their child directly, rather than avoiding them or talking behind their backs with other parents. Making eye contact with them when you’re at the playground, for instance, and sharing a smile and a friendly “hello” can be all that it takes to make a welcoming connection.

If your child wants to have a play date with a child with a disability or invite him or her to a birthday party, encourage it. Call the other parent and say simply, “Katie would love to have Melissa join she and her friends at her birthday party next week. What is Melissa comfortable with and how can we make her feel at ease and welcome?”  See Also:  5 Ways to Support Families Raising an Autistic Child

Tip #3: Encourage Your Child to Be Accepting

Talk to your child regularly about his friends at school and on his various teams. Ask questions such as learning their names, if they have siblings or pets, are they shy or outgoing? Kids are brutally honest and most love to share what they know about their friends, which might offer you a glimpse of any friends that might have special needs. Facilitate playdates that might allow for a new friendship to blossom. Many times, it’s easier to help a special needs child feel included if you can arrange for a 1:1 setting for your child and his classmate in an environment such as your home rather than the park. If your child is too young to handle this by himself, invite the parent as well. It needn’t be an all-day event. In my experience, an hour or so is perfect because it allows for some friendly interaction without the pressure of entertaining for hours.  See Also:  Enjoy Your Child's Playdates


All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Cheryl Butler Project Parenthood

Cheryl L. Butler was the host of the Mighty Mommy podcast for nine years from 2012 to 2021. She is the mother of eight children. Her experiences with infertility, adoption, seven pregnancies, and raising children with developmental delays have helped her become a resource on the joys and challenges of parenting. You can reach her by email.