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Feb 27 2013

How Do I Explain Special Needs to My Kids?

By at 2:19 pm

questions chalkboardI don’t usually consult other people as to what I should say in a given situation. But sometimes, bereft of a frame of reference, I find I need help–and I’m turning to you.

I’m a mom of four kids. While none of them have special needs, I want to be sensitive to those who do–and to parents of special needs kids. And that’s why I’m asking for your advice.

I would never want to be a party to making anyone feel awkward or excluded, but I find that there are situations that arise sometimes where I want to make sure that I am doing the right thing, and am asking for your help.

I went to synagogue for a recent Shabbat with my children. I went to the junior congregation’s service with my two grade-school-age boys and my 4-month-old baby, while my husband took our “older baby” to Tot Shabbat.

We sat down next to two parents who sat with their son, a sweet-faced boy of about 10, sitting between them. We exchanged “Shabbat shaloms,” and then turned our attention to our respective¬†prayer books¬†and the service.

Suddenly, I heard a noise. It was like a small, abrupt yell–the kind of yell you might make if you dropped something on your foot. Without looking, I could tell that the noise came from the boy two seats away from me. A few minutes later, it happened again. And again. It was clear that he couldn’t control himself.

People turned around surreptitiously to see where the noises were coming from. Upon catching sight of the baby on my lap, they smiled and turned around to face forward again, assuming the baby was the culprit. I was happy to have provided the other family with an impromptu alibi.

I felt for the parents and for their son. Sitting next to them, I felt a shadow of what it must be like to be the object of stares and whispers in a place where everyone should feel welcome. I wanted to reach over to them, to hug them, to smile, to do something. I felt uncharacteristically paralyzed: what was the right thing to do?

“Why is that boy yelling?” my younger son whispered, quietly, to me. Not in a malicious way, I want to clarify, or scornfully. He was just a kid genuinely wanting to know why a kid would be yelling in services.

“Some people’s minds are wired differently and it is harder for them to tell what is appropriate and what is inappropriate, or to control their actions,” I whispered, improvising on the spot. I hoped it was a good enough explanation to suffice, that my son would understand and that the boy’s parents, if they overheard me, wouldn’t be offended by my answer. What should I have said?

Becoming a parent is a crash course in empathy. That family struggling with the screaming baby on the plane? We get it. That mom in the museum alone with a baby and a toddler, trying to open a stroller with one hand? Been there, done that. As parents, we viscerally get how hard it is to be a parent, and because of that, we try to help wherever we can, either by offering a literal hand or the metaphorical hand of kindness and understanding.

I haven’t been the parent of a kid with special needs. I feel parents of these kids are doing what I do, but on a much more intense, advanced, exhausting level. I admire them, I feel for them.

How do I show that?

What was the right answer for me to give my son, especially in the event that the child’s parents overheard me?

Should I have said anything to the parents, exchanged a look of understanding?

What could I have done to reach out that hand of kindness? What can we do?

For the month of February, Kveller, in conjunction with Matan, has been highlighting posts about raising kids with special needs in honor of Jewish Disability Awareness Month. Click here to read them all.


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