How often have we been in the local grocery store or bank and heard a child’s raised voice and thought to ourselves that the child needs a nap or even a spanking?

Why do we assume the child who is yelling some garbled noise or loudly patting another is being naughty? In my experience, we all have a sense that whatever we do is right and normal, and when we observe another who deviates from that then their behavior is not “normal” and should be corrected.

While this may be thought with the best of intentions, it leaves little room for allowances and almost no room for children who cannot express themselves in the accepted normal way. According to the Centers for Disease Control, one in six children in the United States has an identified developmental disability. Disabilities can range from mild impairments to severe intellectual and physical disabilities, and the nature or severity of another’s condition is often not easily gleaned by a glance.

A child with multiple disabilities or even a severe intellectual disability can appear to look normal  at first glance. Because we live such hurried lives and rarely take time to meet our neighbors, let alone meet a stranger’s eyes, it is easy to misjudge these children. We hear a raised voice and assume someone is expressing anger. We see a raised hand and assume someone is about to get hurt.

Seems logical doesn’t it? Yelling, hitting, throwing things all point to one very badly behaved child who is a potential risk to those around, right? Not necessarily. If we took the time to understand why some children behave like that and why their responses are as valid to them as ours are to us then we would realize how unrealistic it is to expect all children to comply with society’s “normal.”

Yes, many noises or behaviors may look naughty or make others uncomfortable; however, that may be because we simply do not understand their version of normal any more than they understand our version of normal. These exceptional children do not need, nor do they comprehend, the pitying looks or judgmental attitudes many receive. Nor do they or their families need our misguided interventions regardless of how well meaning they may be. What is needed is education, understanding and accommodation.

Many children with special needs have very valid physical conditions that cause them to have difficulties with relationships, language and comprehension. It should go without saying that the very conditions that cause such learning impairments also are the cause of the behavior difficulties. It is uncommon for a child with autism or mental retardation to throw a tantrum or act out because they are just being naughty. Nor are the parents or caregivers unaware and simply ignoring a behavior that can be addressed and changed by a nap or a time out. In many instances, behaviors and responses that society deems as naughty or inappropriate are the only way that child can express how he or she is feeling. Furthermore, these are chronic conditions that impair a child from identifying danger, thinking, feeling and communicating in an acceptable, “normal” way.

It is the exceptional parent who cares for these children throughout their lives. Many will grow older while never growing independent. These families face daily hardships as many live with a perpetual toddler or a beloved child who can never quite form the bond a loving mother craves.

While I have lived only a short time in this beautiful state, I have noticed the looks and heard comments from parents of exceptional children who have been chastised by the very community they live in. These parents have unique concerns for their children and depending upon the disability, families also must create a unique environment that accommodates the child’s needs. It cannot be stated emphatically enough.

Heather Murphy works as a caregiver for special needs children in the Mat-Su Valley.

(1) comment

It was always amazing how fast my "developmental disabilites" disappeared when Mom or Dad walked into the room. We live in a country that says "No to drugs" but basically has no problem pumping "legal drugs" into our kids. Just a thought....

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