How to Treat Children and Teens With Special Needs

Children and teenagers with special needs are often treated badly by their peers, even though they are often nice to their peers in return. If you want to be kinder to them, but aren't sure how to go about doing it, read on.


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    Assume the best. Presume competence, and always err on the side of assuming that the child means well. Sometimes disabled children are assumed to be angry or disobedient when their disability is impeding their ability to move smoothly or process the demands being placed upon them.
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    Avoid assumptions. Instead, ask questions if you don't know. If you're well-meaning, most people with special needs are happy to fill you in.
    • Don't assume that someone with a physical or developmental disability is intellectually disabled.
    • Ask before helping out: "Do you want me to move this chair out of your way?" Sometimes the disabled person wants to do something different than you anticipated (e.g. getting out of the wheelchair to sit in the chair).
    • Abilities can vary day to day. Someone who can walk with crutches today might need a wheelchair tomorrow.
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    Don't fear disability. It may be new to you, but to the person with special needs, it's a fact of life. Disability does not need to be scary.
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    Treat their disability and its symptoms as natural. Kids and teens with special needs may be insecure about their disability. Treat it similarly to how you'd handle a peanut allergy: talk about it calmly and casually, and accommodate it without making a fuss. This sends the message that you care, and that their needs are not a burden.
    • Assume that any harmless disability symptoms (e.g. stimming) are there for a reason. Treat them as a personal quirk and let them be.
    • If you aren't sure about their needs, it's okay to ask. "Do you need help with the door?" "Is the noise bothering you?"
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    Talk to them the same way you'd talk to another kid their age. Bending down and using baby talk might be appropriate with a two-year-old, but not with a twelve-year-old. Use a tone and body language that convey respect for them.
    • If they are fully articulate, then model your vocabulary usage after theirs. Listening to the words they use will help you know what level of words they understand.
    • If they are not fully articulate, then use the same vocabulary you'd use for their same-age peers. (For example, you would use your normal vocabulary with a nonverbal seventeen-year-old.)
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    Don't disclose an invisible disability without consent. Some disabled people can "pass" as non-disabled, and while this can drain energy, it also makes them less vulnerable to discrimination and intrusive questions. If they have an invisible disability, talk with them about who knows and who doesn't know. Maybe it's public knowledge, or maybe it's a secret.
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    Recognize their strengths. Disability means they face challenges, but this does not make them devoid of strengths. Encourage their talents and cheer them on.
    • Treat their strengths the same way you'd treat a non-disabled person's strengths.
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    Let them support you. Kids and teens with special needs are worthwhile people, and they often have something to contribute (whether it's help with your calculus homework or a hug when you need it). Give them a chance. They may surprise you.
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    See the person and the disability. They want to be seen as a person, while having their limits and challenges respected. If you accommodate their needs, recognize their strengths, and listen to them, you will have achieved this.


  • Act interested! It'll take your mind off of how peculiar they might seem.
  • Research their condition if you're curious. (Be aware though, that some websites are very deficit-oriented and hateful, particularly but not exclusively regarding autism. Look for websites that uphold the dignity of disabled people.)
  • Laugh with them, not at them.


  • If you have difficulty accepting them, then there's no need to be around them. You don't need the stress, and they don't need the pain of not being appreciated for who they are.

Article Info

Categories: Raising Children with Special Needs | Teaching Students with Special Needs