How to talk to your toddler about special needs

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As a parent of two children with special needs, and one typically developing child, I get asked a lot about this topic. And to be honest, even after building our special needs ministry at church, and being part of the special needs community for 7 years, I am still learning how to talk to my 3 year old and her friends about special needs. So, yay! We can navigate it together!

Let’s say you are at Target, picking up some milk and body wash, and you find yourself in the woman’s clothing section. [Don’t worry, we all do it.] While you are browsing the cute sweaters, your toddler says, “Mommy, look at that boy! Why is he so loud?” You look down at your sweet toddler for a second, and then scan the aisles. You see him. He clearly has special needs, so you glance away. God forbid his mom sees you looking, or worse, heard your toddler’s observation in her “outdoor” voice.

What do you say? Do you shush your curious toddler and make a mad dash for the soap aisle? Do you say something and if so, what?

Breathe. You are not alone. We all have these moments when we see someone that looks or acts different than us and we internally panic for a bit. Here are some “best practices” to have in your parenting toolbox for the next time you find yourself in a similar situation.


Bad or good, how you react will inform your child’s reaction. (I know you know that, but it’s a good reminder for the both of us, so that one’s free.)


It’s a good thing she’s asking good questions. Don’t shut her down. Be thankful it’s you she’s asking. It’s something she’s curious about and that’s how we all learn. So way to go, kid! She’s paying attention to the world around her. I would simply say, “Good question!”

If your child said something that makes you want to crawl under a rock, like, “why is that girl drooling”, or, “why is his head so big” don’t freak out. You’ve taught your kid to be descriptive and observant. In fact, most kids are pointing out the obvious, it’s us that make it uncomfortable because we hear our mother telling us to be nice. Don’t shame your child. Normalize the conversation. “I bet there’s a really good reason, and I bet that boy is really brave.”


Then I would say, “Let’s go meet him!” Now, that is assuming mom there for milk and body wash, and happens to be browsing sweaters as well. (It goes without saying, but I wouldn’t recommend meeting the child unless you see it would be a good time to engage a conversation with a stranger. If not, skip to step 6).


However you would address a stranger is how you would address a person with special needs. Think of it like this. How would you want someone to interact with your typically developing child? My favorite interactions with strangers have been when they lead with a compliment. “Oh, your shoes are so cute!” “What beautiful eyelashes!” “Look at that hair!” Talk directly to the child and find something to compliment. Smile. Kids smell fear so be as cool and calm as a mom can.

I would take my toddler by the hand or hold her, communicating she’s safe, and I would go up to the mom and boy and say, “Hello! My name is Stefanie and this is my daughter Ellie. We noticed your cool chair (maybe if he was in a wheelchair) and awesome spiderman t-shirt. What’s your name?” Notice, I addressed the non-verbal child. I didn’t talk through him or over him, I talked to him like he was a “him.” Which leads me to my next point.


Assume they can understand. The parent will speak for the child if necessary. One of the biggest misconceptions when observing a physical limitation is that there is also a cognitive one. We have no idea what even a nonverbal child can understand, so your default should be they understand everything. One child asked if my middle daughter, Brooklyn could talk. I first thought, no, because I was thinking verbally. But Brooklyn can talk, I told them. She communicates with her eyes, her smile, and her body language. We just have to be better listeners. And, I know she understands a lot more than she can express.


After we smile and say “It was nice to meet you, Johnny!” I would typically walk away and wait until we got to the car to have a follow up conversation with my daughter. However, if the mom seems open and your child is a bit more curious, I would say, “Do you mind telling me a little bit about Johnny?’ Or even better, “Johnny, can you tell me a bit about yourself?” Stay away from “what’s wrong?” “What’s his problem?” Or, “What happened?” And here’s why…


What we teach our kids about themselves is how they will see others. If we focus on their abilities, or lack there of, they will judge others in the same way. If we focus on their character, who they are becoming, they will judge others likewise.

If you are following Christ, it a great time to talk about how creative God is. We need lots of different types of people to make up the body of Christ. How boring would the world be if there were only one species of animal or we all looked exactly the same? We all have different gifts, too, and people with special needs aren’t excluded from God’s design. In fact, sometimes God chooses “the least of these” or our most broken places to shine brightest. And we all have broken imperfections, don’t we?

In the end, it’s not about special needs, really. It’s about how we treat one another, regardless of what we see.


Have you ever had a similar conversation? What did you say? What would you add to the list?

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