Stop ‘Othering’ Children and Start Behaving with Compassion by Nancy Gonsalves-Robertson MA LMFT

Written by: Nancy Robertson MA, LMFT Published on: July 28, 2021

“They made no accommodations to get her wheelchair on stage, so during the ceremony they simply forgot to call her name.”

A curious incident involving a friend of mine prompted this post. Without going into details, her child was excluded from activities. This family has struggled for many years to help their disabled daughter understand, cope with, and overcome the fact that her brain is wired differently from others.

Many families face this struggle on a daily basis. In May a pilot made an emergency landing to kick an autistic girl and her family off the plane. At a graduation ceremony in the spring, one fifth-grader was not even acknowledged. They made no accommodations to get her wheelchair on stage, so during the ceremony they simply forgot to call her name.

Parenting in an Exclusionary World

How does a parent feel when this happens to their child? You cannot undo the stares, take back the rude comments, or mend the heartbreak of exclusion. What is it like to parent these children? A UK newspaper, The Guardian, interviewed a mom about this. She said, “The odds seemed stacked against you, and if people would just give you a bit of space and support, it would go a long way, but you’re struggling to start with, then people knock you down further. They make assumptions about you and treat your child as though he or she is dangerous or badly behaved. It’s soul-destroying.”

Many of the parents I work with tell me how frustrated they are in church, supermarkets, or restaurants when their child acts up, melts down, or simply won’t budge. One mom tearfully said, “I just want to shout, ‘we try, we really do.’” Another mom commented that “We’re in the same boat as you.”

It can be especially difficult if your child has an invisible disability, such as a sensory integration disorder, Asperger’s syndrome, or Tourette’s syndrome. He may look like any other kid on the playground, but he may then make strange noises or be in his own world, repetitively twirling streamers. The family in the restaurant looks like all the other families having dinner until their child starts screaming because the food doesn’t look right. Of course, no one wants this to happen; not the family, the other diners, or the child.

How can we show compassion and help?

A friend and parent to special needs kids told me, “Everyone can’t do everything the same way. We have to dispel the notion of fair and recognize that fair is different than need.” In the airlines incident, the parent asked to buy hot food from First Class to calm her daughter down but was told no, it couldn’t be done. Apparently, it was easier and more cost-effective to make an emergency landing.

My friend also pointed out that “the special needs group is the only minority you can join at any time.” If you experience a fall, car accident, or stroke, your world changes.

So as you enjoy the less stressful time of summer, take some time to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. Back away from the criticism, let the judgment go, and encourage and support others. Compliment the family and the kids for doing the right thing. Acknowledge the hard work and the effort. Praise them. Build them up. It will lift their spirits and yours.

Nancy Robertson MA, LMFT

Nancy Robertson is a licensed psychotherapist and has been counseling and coaching in California and Texas for over 25 years. She is committed to helping people find the joy and fulfillment that she believes everyone deserves.