Explaining Disabilities, Disorders, and other Differences to Kids


“Mama, that guy has a robot leg!” my five-year-old son exclaims as we pass a man with a prosthetic leg.  He is simply noticing differences, but he’s certainly not the most politically correct child. 

We also have had a child on the autism spectrum play on our t-ball team.  On our way home from a game one night, my son asks me “Why does he act like that when he doesn’t get the ball?  It’s not that big of a deal…”

Been there? Does your child blatantly gawk at someone in a wheelchair? 

How do you explain differences to a child?   

My background is in occupational therapy, and I have worked with a lot of children who have disabilities, delays, and disorders.  I have had to field these stares and questions from other kids walking past us in the hallways at school. Not the most comfortable questions to answer.  But someone has to do it. I am of the position that our children should be educated about these differences so that they know how to best serve (or not!) these populations.  

Here are some tips on how to best communicate and explain these differences to your kids:

  • Yes, they are different from you, but that is OKAY!  They are not “weird,” nor should they be treated differently, just because of their disability.  It is okay for people to not be exactly like you.  
  • Communicate some basic information about the disability or disorder.  You can do this by simply saying something similar to the following: 
    1. “People with autism may react differently to situations than you would.  Their brains may work a little differently than yours. They may make movements with their hands or make noises with their mouth.  This is just how they process and handle the world.”  
    2. “People with prosthetic limbs may have had something happen that caused them to lose that limb, or they may have been born without it.  That doesn’t mean they can’t walk and play and do plenty of things!”  
    3. Giving kids a little information on what to expect from people with disabilities gives them confidence to interact with them.
  • Yes, they have _____, but that’s not WHO they are!  Don’t limit these people to a diagnosis.  I’m sure they have interests and favorites, likes and dislikes, possibly hobbies they like, or people they love.  They are human, just like you, and you should treat them as such.
  • Use “person-first” language.  This means you focus first on the person, instead of the disability.  For example, you can say “a person with autism” or “he is on the autism spectrum” instead of “autistic person” or “person with a prosthetic leg” instead of “disabled person” or “wheelchair-bound person” or (God forbid!) “robot-leg guy…” Here again, don’t limit people to a diagnosis. For some people with disabilities, this is not an issue, but until you get to know someone, it’s always better to be safe than sorry. 
  • ASK before you help.  Yes, sometimes it takes other people longer to do things that you may be able to do quickly.  Sometimes, other people may struggle with what seems to be a simple task. I appreciate your willingness to help, but sometimes people may not want your help.  Some people want to do things as independently as possible. It is always a good idea to let people try things independently first and then ask them if they would like your help.  

Make sure your kids know that EVERYONE is human and EVERYONE deserves to be treated with love, kindness, and respect.