I was caught off guard; trying to conceal any looks of shock and avoid stumbling over my words.
“Why is he like that?” She said, “if you don’t mind me asking”
I didn’t mind, really, I just wasn’t expecting to have to deal with those types of questions until J was a older. I guess she noticed that, as hard as J tried to look directly at her, he just couldn’t quite make it and his right eye turned inward.
“Was he born like that?”
Man, this lady was cutting right to the core, right there in the bathroom of Sam’s Club. All I wanted was to get a big soft pretzel but I ended up having to explain my son’s disability to a stranger with a freshly emptied bladder. And you know what? It was ok.
Truthfully, I think I got really lucky. So many parents’ stories of the first time they had to explain why their child was different to someone are awful and end in tears. Too many people ask such personal questions about things that aren’t any of their business. And sometimes parents are put in a defensive position, having to go to bat for their kids while a stranger scolds them for the kid’s behavior. It’s awful! Why do people feel the need to criticize parents? Do we really so quickly forget what it was like to be in that place? That place of no control where a simple grocery store run can turn into a full blown meltdown over a bag of tiny marshmallows.
It’s just so hard! I hate feeling like I constantly have to make excuses for him- to explain over and over why he won’t look at you when you talk to him or why he wont play with the toy you’re offering. I’ve gotten to where I feel like I have to rationalize why he’s so small and only drinking a bottle when they ask how old he is. But at the same time, I am growing to love telling Jonah’s story. That lady at Sam’s Club had no idea what she was getting into by asking me questions. She was genuinely curious and understanding. She didn’t awkwardly shy away from us when she found out he was disabled. She walked all the way out of the bathroom with me, asking more, saying she was sorry, and listening to our story. She commented empathetically that his situation was awful, but I got to tell her how it’s just a part of his story and he’ll be okay.
The thing that I, and anyone with a special needs child, or a child with ADHD, or a grumpy toddler who missed their nap, has to remember is that usually people aren’t trying to be malicious, they’re just curious. In their own weird way, people are trying to help or connect. As far as I’m concerned, ask questions people! Ask away. I’d love to tell you the story of how my baby went through a traumatic event but is now making progress forward. I’d love to tell you how he’s overcome. I’d much rather you ask than just stare or flash a pity smile.
With that said, here are a few things not to do/say and some more polite alternatives:
- Don’t criticize how another parent is handling their child. You never know how many times they’ve already asked their kid to stop, or if their child has behavioral issues. Offer help! Even if it’s just offering to watch a parent’s shopping cart while they try to stop their 4-year-old from ripping apart all the tampon boxes, any small thing could help. Be specific if the situation allows- ex: “can I watch your cart”, “can I hand you a paper towel”, etc. rather than just “can I help”
- Don’t say things like, “What’s wrong with him/her?” or “Why is he/she like that?” I think it’s more polite to ask specific questions if possible about a potential disability. Ex: “Does he have visions issues” would have been easier to hear from the lady I encountered that just “what’s wrong with him”. “Does she have down’s syndrome” is always better than “why is her face like that”. “I noticed he has trouble walking, do you mind if I ask why” is more polite than “can’t he walk right” This one is tricky because it feels impossible to find a way to ask questions to a stranger without offending. Just do your best to show genuine curiosity and not rudeness. Or, don’t say anything at all.
- Don’t assume you know the child’s demeanor just because it’s physically obvious that they have downs syndrome or some other disability/special need. Every kid is different and will react differently to interactions. Just because your cousin with autism like high fives, doesn’t mean the random kid at Walmart does, too. Ask the parent or child if they like high-fives or the color blue, or whatever. Or..just leave them alone and don’t ask anything.
- Never stare, whisper or go out of your way to avoid someone who you think has special needs. Be normal. Keep walking. Keep doing whatever you were doing. Offer a nice smile if you’d like and just carry on as normal.
- Don’t touch! Just don’t. Whether you think the child has special needs or not, just don’t touch other people’s children without their permission. Especially don’t pat a child in a wheelchair on the head like a dog or move them out of the way. Think of a wheelchair as an extension of the body. It acts as legs, would you touch someone’s legs? I hope not.
I hope these things are helpful. I hope you do encounter people of all ages with all kinds of special needs and that you try to learn more about them just like you would if they were any other person, because they are. They are just people.
And if you’re one of the parents who has had awful encounters with strangers asking all the wrong questions, please forgive them. They’re just people, too. We all mess up and wish we had said or done things differently. Try hard not to let it bother you. Just offer a little education and move on. In 3 years or even 3 seconds, it won’t matter anyways.
“A gentle answer turns away wrath, But a harsh word stirs up anger.” Proverbs 15:1