For children with different abilities (such as those with autism or other developmental differences), struggling with social communication is common. As pediatric speech and occupational therapists, we spend a lot of time helping these children build skills to be able to interact with others. But this approach tends to be a one-way street. What about typically-developing children? It’s equally important that they, too, learn how to interact with children with different abilities.

To dig into building a bridge between children who are typically-developing and those with different abilities, we sat down with Occupational Therapist Nancy Amar. Here are her tips:

You Set the Tone

The number-one influence on your child’s attitude toward different abilities is your attitude towards them! When you feel comfortable with differences, it helps your child feel comfortable with them, too. Here are some ways to cultivate this: 

  • Acknowledge and normalize the fact that we all have different abilities.
  • Avoid words such as disability or special needs, which focus on deficits. Instead, use words such as different abilities or differences. The language we use is important!
  • Avoid feeling sorry for children with differences, and instead focus on their value as unique individuals.

Answer Your Child’s Questions Honestly and Positively

When your child points out different abilities and asks you about them, respond in a way that lets them know that talking about differences is not taboo. They feel genuinely curious, and they need to know that that’s okay! For example, if your child sees another child flapping their hands, an honest and positive response might be: “You know how you jump up and down when you’re excited? It looks like that is his way of showing excitement. What are some things that make you feel excited?”

This type of response not only normalizes talking about differences, it also helps your child go beyond them and think about similarities… which brings us to Nancy’s next tip: 

Shift from Differences to Similarities

While acknowledging different abilities is important, we also need to keep in mind that for children, explanations are not enough. What they value is being able to connect with peers, so giving them tools to be able to do that is key – especially when differences are involved.

For example, to help them connect with a child with autism, focus on common interests. Is there a toy or activity that they both enjoy? Learning to focus on similarities helps children move beyond thinking about differences.

Empathy Starts at Home

Because empathy is a complex skill that takes years to develop, it will take time for your child to truly be able to put themselves in someone else’s shoes. That’s why teaching them practical skills like finding common interests with peers is so important when they’re young.

At home, you can start to build the foundation for empathy by including toys, books, shows, etc. that include characters (bonus for main characters!) with different abilities. This (along with openly discussing different abilities in a positive way) not only normalizes differences, but also shows your child that all children want the same things – like friendship, inclusion, and kindness.

Tools for Social Conflict

Aside from teaching children to treat others with kindness, no matter their abilities, they also need to know what to do if they witness another child being treated unkindly. Let them know that the number-one rule of thumb is to find a trusted adult right away, to tell them that another child may need help.

These tips help to create an environment in which all children, regardless of different abilities, have rich opportunities for meaningful interaction with peers.

Nancy Amar is a pediatric occupational therapist whose greatest passion is advocating for inclusion for individuals of all abilities. Her goal is to shift the way we see Autism. You can follow her on IG @missmancyinc, and support her new non-profit for young Autistic adults at Nancy believes that A-wareness S-hifts the D-efinition.