A differently abled child playing a piano

It was a lazy Sunday afternoon, a time that I usually reserve for a book or a power nap. This Sunday was different as I decided to watch TV instead. After flipping through over a 100 channels mindlessly, I handed over the remote to my then six-year-old daughter. Her happiness knew no bounds and soon she too began the game of flipping channels. After about 10 minutes, she settled on Koi Mil Gaya, a movie about a grown up young man with stunted mental development.

I went back to reading a book while my daughter watched the protagonist, Hrithik Roshan, being bullied by a group of older boys. Suddenly my daughter asked, “Mamma, why is Hrithik behaving like a child, even though he is a big boy? Why does his mom take care of him? Why does he still play with small children?”

“Hrithik is playing the role of a special and different child in this movie,” I replied thinking that it will satisfy her curiosity. However, it fanned it further as she brought forth a new thread for discussion.

“Oh! You mean he is like that boy we saw the other day on the train.”

I nodded, but wondered what she was talking about.

After a few minutes, she came up to me, pulled the book from my hand and asked, “Mamma, just like some people don’t have arms and legs, I think that Hrithik doesn’t have brains in this movie. What do you think?” I wasn’t prepared for the direction in which our interaction was headed. As parents, we unconsciously avoid sensitive topics like sexuality, death and divorce. Likewise, we never discuss physical or mental challenges, especially with our children, but that Sunday afternoon, my six-year-old decided to delve deeper.

Children haven’t yet acquired the ability to distort and filter and this innocence makes them connect

Unfounded fears

I knew that there were some differently abled children in her school. However, on that day my daughter revealed that she had been paired with a special child at her school. She was given the responsibility to help him with their regular tasks. I was shocked and not at all comfortable with this revelation. I felt scared and immediately started wondering, “What if this boy hits my daughter?”, “What if my daughter scores low grades?”, “What if she becomes less attentive?”, ”What if he tears her notebooks?” and so on.

“Mamma, Vihaan is so talented, he made a beautiful nature painting the other day. And he also taught me how to paint a morning sky,” she said, breaking my train of thought. Then she also narrated an instance when some boys were teasing Vihaan and a group of girls stopped them with a warning.

At once my fear dissipated and I laughed at myself. Here I was, concerned that being friends with a differently abled child might affect my daughter’s grades, and there she was so at ease with him. In fact she was excited about learning new things from him.

I realised that we have lost the natural comfort that children are able to share with everyone. They haven’t yet acquired the ability to distort and filter and this innocence makes them connect.

Instead of focussing on what they can’t do, we should encourage children to improve the skills and talents they possess

Lessons I learnt

The other day in a public playground, we met a girl with Down syndrome and while some children refused to play with this cute girl, my daughter went ahead and sat on the swing next to her. I watched in pride as other children soon followed my daughter’s lead. This time I wasn’t terrified or anxious and allowed my daughter to enjoy this experience of connecting with another child.

My six-year-old taught me a few powerful lessons about children with special needs.

Encouragement

Though Vihaan couldn’t write quickly or run fast, he was very good in art and made masterpieces and that was his special talent. Instead of focussing on what they can’t do, we should encourage children to improve the skills and talents they possess. Not only will this help them excel, it will also boost their morale and self-esteem—two powerful emotions that special children require more than most.

You may also like: “I am a special mother”

Acceptance

When we acknowledge that they are human just like the rest of us, it changes our perspective and the way we treat special children [and adults too]. Instead of being indifferent, if we show them empathy, we can help make their life beautiful and meaningful. As social animals, we all crave acceptance, so we ought to treat each other with respect and embrace our differences.

Steer clear of labelling

Hyperactive, ADHD, OCD, autistic—we have so many labels for a child’s behaviour and I feel this can limit their abilities. Instead of labelling them, what if we try to look for ways to help them deal with their behaviour more effectively? Special or not, each child faces challenges and as an adult I believe we should empower them to deal with these challenges.

Angela Schwindt sums it up beautifully in her words. “While we try to teach our children all about life, our children teach us what life is all about.” That Sunday afternoon changed the way I looked at special children and maybe that’s when I was inspired to learn more about human psychology and to become a therapist.


A version of this article first appeared in the March 2016 issue of Complete Wellbeing.

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