It’s Taboo, So Let’s Talk About It: Interacting With People With Special Needs
He was such a beautiful baby, I could hardly take my eyes off him. He was sitting in a booster seat at the restaurant, smiling and cooing, with his dad beside him and his older sister across the table. The father looked a little tired; he was wearing a business suit, so he’d probably picked up the kids right after work. Yet even so, he was speaking kindly, and I could tell that he loved his kids deeply.
The little family was seated next to my best friend and me, and it was all I could do not to pull up the vacant chair at their table and introduce myself. Instead, I sipped my cafe au lait and thought about how good it felt to sit next to that little family, how the little kindnesses we offer one another have the power to spill over and give life to others, even to strangers at a restaurant.
Oh, and I meant to mention — the beautiful baby boy had Down Syndrome.
Thanks to L’Arche (and my relationship with my brother), I tend to gravitate toward people with special needs. When I see someone who is visibly ‘different’, I feel connected to them, because I see reflections of the people I know and love. In unfamiliar faces, I see glimpses of Miguel*, Leo, Cassandra, Willie. I know a bit about how harsh the world can be to them, and I find myself wanting to offer a smile, a hand, a safe haven.
My life experience has led me to be guilty of reverse prejudice; I tend to automatically assume the best in people with special needs. (I find myself praying to see neurotypical people in the same light!) Biased as this feeling of connectedness can be, I like to think of a glimpse of how we’re meant to encounter one another.
Even so, I realize that not everyone has this reaction. While I tend to want to be best friends with people with special needs (and need to remind myself to be safety-conscious with people I don’t know), others struggle with how to connect without offense.
The fact that this is a challenge makes a lot of sense, given that many people haven’t had significant relationships with individuals with special needs. And, with the rise of community-based care and greater (not great) social welcome, there seem to be more individuals with special needs who are part of our communities. In schools, workplaces, and churches across the country, people are wondering: how do I interact with my classmate, coworker, or extended family member with special needs?
I’ll be the first to say: I don’t have all the answers. What I do have is a lifetime of experience seeing people interact with my brother and my friends at L’Arche. In that capacity, I’ve seen some failed attempts, and plenty of successes too. So, when a friend asked me to write about this topic, my first thought was, “How can I presume to know enough to address it?” and my second thought was, “Well, somebody has to.”
Here are a few ideas to consider.
Firstly, if you, like my friend, are the kind of person who cares enough about another person’s feelings to want to learn how to interact — you are on the right track. The desire to connect and be kind is fundamental to a positive interaction with anyone.
That said, remember to use common courtesy and person-first language when talking to (or about) any individual. For example, say, “A young man who has autism” as opposed to, “That autistic teenager” or “That special-needs kid.” Put the person before the diagnosis, always. Of course, avoid words like “retard” or “idiot”, which are offensive in any context. Words are powerful, and taking responsibility for what we say is an essential step toward connection.
When I’ve gone out with people from L’Arche, I’ve had people ask me, in a whisper, “What’s wrong with him / her / them?” In such cases, I’ve been tempted to whisper back, “Nothing. What’s wrong with you?!” (Instead, I’d say, “That’s not at all an appropriate question.”) Aside from the obvious offense there, medical information is private, and should not be disclosed by anyone but the individual themselves (except on a need-to-know/emergency basis, or with the express permission of that person).
Secondly, listen. Pay attention to the way in which the other person communicates. Do they speak with their hands, through gestures? Do they seem to struggle for words? Give them time to express themselves; they may take longer than you do to process their thoughts and turn them into expressions. You might expect an immediate reply, and that might be an unrealistic expectation. Be patient.
In the beautiful words of Kelle Hampton, “I am learning, not just in parenting but in every relationship, that multiple languages exist and not one is superior to another. The more I listen, the better I love.”
That said, if you’re uncomfortable with a person or situation, speak up. State your needs clearly and calmly. For example, if you’re not comfortable with hugging someone, you can say something like, “How about we shake hands instead?” Offer yourself the same respect you’re offering the other person.
Thirdly, assume competence. If someone doesn’t seem to understand you when you speak, don’t take it personally or feel like you’ve failed; the fact that you’re trying to communicate respectfully speaks volumes. Ideally, engage with the person along with someone who knows them well; having a ‘translator’ for another person’s words and actions can be invaluable.
Also, don’t be thrown off by another’s idiosyncratic behaviors. Friends of mine purr, flap their hands, and pronounce words differently, and these expressions are natural for them. Remember that once you’re in relationship with someone, idiosyncracies that once seemed strange become more understandable at worst, a part of a beloved whole at best. (As Robin Williams said in Good Will Hunting, “The little idiosyncrasies … People call these things imperfections, but they’re not. Ah, that’s the good stuff.”)
Fourthly, offer assistance where appropriate (and also be willing to have your offer turned down). When I was an assistant at L’Arche, people would go out of their way to help me when I was with someone in a walker or wheelchair, and I appreciated their assistance.
However, there were also times when people would try to do too much; they’d leap up or hover worriedly if they saw someone so much as walk differently. (Both caregivers and parents are apt to receive plenty of unsolicited caregiving advice!) It can be tricky to balance the dignity of risk, so do your best to respect both the individual and the caregiver.
Fiftly, avoid over-generalizations. I was in a doctor’s appointment recently, and a nurse asked about my brother and his life. After I’d shared a bit about his hobbies and gifts, she said, sweetly, “I hope you aren’t offended by this, but people with autism are very smart and intelligent.”
I was taken aback; other than the obvious generalization, where was the offense in her statement? And then I realized: what was unsettling to me wasn’t the generalization per se, but how we’d shifted from talking about my brother as an individual to talking about people with autism as a collective.
In that spirit, I’d suggest avoiding generalizations when you’re getting to know someone with special needs. While it might seem easier to categorize someone and thereby assume that you understand them, it’s infinitely more rewarding to get to know people personally.
And, most of all … prepare to be amazed at the friends you’ll meet and the courage you’ll encounter. Prepare to have your priorities shift. Prepare to love, and to be loved in return.
Back to the restaurant, and the family having supper. I’m not sure what I’d have said if I’d been bold enough to trespass on their family time, but I think it would have been something like: “Hi. I’m Caroline. I just wanted to say that you have a beautiful family.” And maybe I would have been brazen and left my card on the table, too.
As it was, I caught the father’s eye as they were rising to leave. He smiled at me, and I shone my best smile at him. And even though I’d wanted to say more, I couldn’t help but think that a smile was exactly right.
What’s your best tip for facilitating positive interactions with individuals with special needs? Tell me in the comments!
If this post spoke to you, please share it with those you love.
- Long-time AWCC reader and Coach Extraordinare Harriet Cabelly is hosting a free teleclass for parents this Tuesday, April 24th, from 9-10p EST! If you want to build connections with your kids and help them deal effectively with their feelings, you’ll want to learn more here.
- I’ll be speaking on the subject of inclusive communities, giving a talk entitled, “Not A Burden, But A Privilege” at the St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Derwood, MD on Thursday, May 10th, from 7:30 – 8:30pm. If you’re in the DC/MD/VA area, I’d love to see you there!
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*Names have been changed.
About Caroline McGraw
I'm a would-be childhood paleontologist turned full-time writer, digging for treasure in people and uncovering sacred stories in ordinary days. I grew up in New Jersey (think peaceful suburb, not Newark), graduated from Vassar with honors, then served as a live-in caregiver and program director at L'Arche Washington DC. Nowadays, my husband renovates our historic 1901 home in northwestern Alabama, while I try (& fail) to keep our cat Bootsie from developing an epic tuna fish addiction. It's a beautiful life. Follow me on Facebook, Twitter, or Google+.