No parent would like it if a stranger questioned their child's behavior or started asking deeply personal questions, yet that's the kind of thing that parents of children with disabilities have to deal with all of the time. In addition to having their children rudely stared at or just blatantly ignored, these parents often find themselves the target of inappropriate, hurtful or insulting comments (well-intentioned or not).
Dr. Darla Clayton, Psy.D., a parent of a child with a disability herself, finds that people are remarkably comfortable making comments about her parenting, spiritual beliefs, life choices and future plans.
"I work hard to maintain my belief that the world is basically good and that most of the people in it are good as well," Dr. Clayton writes. "To this end, I really want to believe that most of these comments, no matter how inappropriate, hurtful or insulting they may be, come from a place of good intentions that have gone awry."
Regardless of how well-meaning they are, people need to know that it's not okay. These parents don't need people to comfort them, give them advice, or pretend that they can relate when they obviously can't. Like every parent, they deserve love, respect, and understanding. What they don't need are people running their mouths and giving them unsolicited advice.
Here are 20 things people need to stop saying to parents of children with disabilities, immediately.
20 "I'm Sorry"
Many people will say "I'm sorry" to the parents of kids with disabilities in an effort to express compassion over what they perceive to be a tragedy, but compassion and pity are two different things. Having a child with disabilities is not something that requires an apology, and these parents certainly don't want your pity! "I'm sorry" is what you say to a person when someone passes, not when their child is alive and happy. Having a child with disabilities can be challenging, sure, but it's also full of love, laughter, and pride.
19 "But He/She Looks So Normal"
This is something a lot of well-meaning people say to reassure parents of kids with disabilities, and most are completely oblivious to how offensive this sounds. Telling someone that their child "looks normal" implies that something about them is deeply abnormal, but what is "normal," exactly? 1 in 68 children have autism and 1 in 25 adults in the U.S. has a mental disorder in any given year, so maybe the word "normal" needs to be redefined.
Sure, these kids might come with some unique challenges, but there is nothing "wrong" with them. They are exactly who they are supposed to be.
18 "I Don't Know How You Do It"
I think most parents of kids with disabilities recognize that people mean this as a compliment, but in the end, it just comes off as patronizing. Parents deal with whatever unique challenges come their way, regardless of whether their kid has disabilities or not. Loving and caring for your child doesn't make someone a super mom, it just makes them a regular mom. Anyone who's worth their salt as a parent will adjust, advocate and do whatever is necessary to see their children succeed. Saying "I don't know how you do it" is implying that the parent has a choice in the matter. If your kid (who you love) needs special care, then you give it to them. Period.
17 "He/She Just Needs A Good Spanking"
OMG, gag me now. This kind of comment usually comes from the older generations, but not always. Parents with children who have "invisible disabilities" hear this quite often (as well as receiving dirty, judgmental looks from strangers). There is a big difference between a regular temper tantrum and the meltdown of a child with disabilities, which are often caused by sensory overload or the inability to communicate. Many times these kids (and parents) are dealing with things that we can't even dream of, so keep your discipline advice to yourself and practice some compassion.
16 "Be Happy Your Child Isn't Talking"
Although this is often said in an effort to make the parent of a child with disabilities feel better, this kind of comment is completely inappropriate. First of all, just because a child isn't speaking doesn't mean they're not communicating. Children with disabilities express themselves in a variety of different ways, from their behavior, hand gestures, facial expressions, etc. Secondly, making light of a child's non-verbal situation isn't going to make anyone feel better, trust me. Special needs parents don't need your lame attempts at consolation.
15 "Are You Worried About Their Future?"
You wouldn't think that people would say this to any parent, but sadly, it happens to these parents all the time. Every parent worries about their child's future, don't they? This is nothing unique or unusual. Stop relaying horror stories about adults with disabilities who have been mistreated and abused, because I'm 100% sure they've heard it all before and don't appreciate you bringing it up. It is not your place to question them about their long-term plans or give unsolicited advice about their child's future. Everyone prepares for their child's future as best they can.
14 "Have You Tried (Fill In The Blank)?"
People love to give well-meaning advice, but the implication is that you know better than the team of highly trained medical specialists that have been treating their child for years. I don't care how much you learned about autism in a Netflix documentary, it is not your place to give your medical advice/opinions to the parent. They don't need to hear how juicing is the solution to their child's "problems," or how a gluten-free diet could be the cure they've been waiting for. No one has their child's interests at heart more than they do, trust me.
13 Using The R-Word Or Other Derogatory Terms
This should be a no-brainer, but unfortunately, many people still use inappropriate and offensive terms to describe children with disabilities. The R-word is never acceptable, regardless of how often it's been used in the past, but people use many insensitive words without even realizing it.
As one advocate put it: "Disability metaphors abound in our culture, and they exist almost entirely as pejoratives. You see something wrong? Compare it to a disabled body or mind: Paralyzed. Lame. Crippled. Schizophrenic. Diseased. Sick. Want to launch an insult? The words are seemingly endless: Deaf. Dumb. Blind. Idiot. Moron. Imbecile. Crazy. Insane. Retard. Lunatic. Psycho. Spaz."
12 "Maybe They Will Outgrow It"
This kind of ignorance drives the parents crazy. Children don't "grow out of" autism, because autism is the just the way their brain works. People don't grow out of cerebral palsy or Down syndrome, either. Everyone changes as they get older, but asking if a child will "grow out of" their condition implies that they need to get better. Obviously, the parents celebrate every milestone and hope and pray for continued progress, but they are not simply waiting for their child to be "normal" one day.
11 "Is It Genetic?"
This is a question that a parent might ask the doctor, but it is NEVER a question anyone should be asking any parent. How a child came by their condition is a personal question that is, quite frankly, nobody's business. No one likes to think that their genetics are responsible for their child's condition, even if that is the case. Asking "is it genetic?" implies that someone is to blame for the child's challenges, even if there is no genetic component whatsoever.
10 "What's Wrong With Him/Her?"
Asking what is "wrong" with someone's child is downright cruel, but yet these parents deal with this question all the time. Don't get me wrong, these parents are more than happy to educate people about their children's condition, but not when it's phrased this way. There is nothing "wrong" with their children, they are exactly who they are meant to be and everyone comes into the world with their own set of challenges. Kids with disabilities are unique human beings (like everyone else) who deserve your respect.
9 "God Gives Special Children To Special Parents"
Oh, look, it's just another lame attempt at consolation that has us cringing. This is one of the most patronizing things you can say to a parent of a child with disabilities, so it's time to shut the hell up before you get throat punched. People who say this are often the ones who like to speak to people with disabilities in a loud baby voice (even if they're adults). These parents don't need you to make them "feel better" about their situation, no matter how "unfortunate" you think it might be. Trust me, they're doing just fine without your senseless platitudes.
8 "Maybe He/She Is Overmedicated"
I'm not sure where people get off sharing their unprofessional medical opinions with parents, but that's exactly what they'll do (particularly family members who feel they have a right to express their "concerns"). People don't just medicate their child willy-nilly, there is a team of high-skilled specialists guiding every decision they make. Parents don't have to justify any medical decision they make for their child, and to ask them to do so is ludicrous. The only people who have a say on this subject are the parents, the doctors, and the child.
7 "What About A Group Home?"
Although there might be situations where group homes are necessary, suggesting to someone that they should send their child away is cold-hearted and completely out of line. Not too long ago people with disabilities were seen as burdens to the family and were routinely sent to institutions and shut off from the rest of the world. How could anyone assume that a parent wouldn't want to keep their child? Suggesting a group home shows how little society values people with disabilities.
6 "Didn't You Know Before The Birth?"
This is an unbelievably personal question that should never be asked because it suggests had the parents known about their child’s condition, they would have (or should have) chosen to terminate the pregnancy. Believe it or not, people don't like it when you question their child's worth (and that's exactly what you're doing by asking this). Whether they did or didn't know before the birth is totally irrelevant to a parent who loves their child more than life, disability or not.
5 "At Least... (Fill In The Blank)"
"At least he's high-functioning." "At least she's not in diapers." "At least they can walk." "At least she can talk."
People love to make "at least" statements in an effort to make parents feel better about their child's situation, but why would anyone assume they need to feel better to begin with? These parents celebrate every milestone their child makes (even when they occur years later than their peers) and rejoice in every little bit of progress, however large or small (like every parent). Their children are simply on a different path and they are living with a "new normal."
4 "My Kid Does It, Too"
This is often well-intentioned, but saying "my kid does that too" only diminishes someone's personal experience and invalidates how they're feeling. When a mom comes up to you and tells you about the epic meltdown her child had at the park, she does NOT want you to tell her that you've been there (when you clearly haven't). Unless you are raising a child with disabilities yourself, your experiences are NOT the same, and all she needs is your unwavering support and a listening ear.
3 "God Only Gives Us What We Can Handle"
If a parent is looking for spiritual advice or comfort then they will seek it out for themselves, so don't offer up unsolicited spiritual advice unless it's implicitly asked for. When raising a child with disabilities there are going to be moments when the parents feel like they can't handle it, and that's okay. Sometimes it is too much for one person to handle and they should feel free to ask for help. These parents need your compassion and support, not your misinterpreted bible quotes. In other words, no amount of "Christianese" is going to make parents feel better when they're struggling, so lend a helping hand and shut the hell up.
2 "Have You Gotten A Second Opinion?"
People will often question a child's diagnosis, especially when the child has no visible disability. Anyone who has ever been down a disability road has gotten plenty of opinions, thankyouverymuch. Chances are they've been to countless doctors and specialists and gotten third, fourth, and fifth opinions by now, but even if they haven't, is it really any of your business? NOPE. By asking "have you gotten a second opinion" you are basically just second-guessing the parents, and that's the last thing they need.
1 "Stop Spoiling Him/Her"
Less visible disabilities, like autism or ADHD, can leave a parent facing tremendous amounts of judgment from everyone around them. Let's face it, mean-spirited people love to blame parents for their child's behavior, regardless of their condition. "You're spoiling them," "stop making excuses for their behavior," and "stop playing the 'autism' card" are just a few of the hurtful things that are said to special parents all the time. This is the opposite of supportive and only serves to belittle parents who are trying their best to handle a complicated situation.
References: huffingtonpost.com, nami.org, ollibean.com, parents.com