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How to talk to your toddler about special needs

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? 

Share this post and add your comments on Facebook, I'd love to hear them!


Little Yellow Lamborghini


Sunday marked a close to a 9 year run on staff at Immanuel. What a great ride. The staff was so kind and gave me a little send off after second service.  Sheryll made a fantastic cake with a yellow Lamborghini on it that said, "Drive!!!" Josh shared that in my resignation letter, I told a story about a little girl and her father, and a yellow Lamborghini so I thought it would be fun to share the little tale with you.  


Written November 2015

One day, a child was given a little, yellow Lamborghini hot wheel for her birthday from her father. What may have been an odd gift for a girl, it quickly became her favorite little treasure. She adored her dad, and loved that he had given her such an amazing gift. To her, it was perfect. She took it everywhere with her, and at every chance she got, she would take it out and drive it. Back and forth, back and forth. She would build elaborate ramps, and parking garages, and car washes. She would drive it through the mud, down the slides, and under tables.

And every night, her dad would tuck her in, set her little Lamborghini on the nightstand, and kiss her little forehead and say, “I am so proud of you.”

Years went by, but the little girl’s love for her toy never changed. The car was well worn as anyone could see by the chipping paint and sticky wheels.

In high school and college, the car was almost lost. The young woman was reckless and the tiny car spent most of the time in a dorm room drawer. Until one day, as she was unpacking after college, she found the little treasure and put it back in it’s rightful place.

A few years later, she started a family her own. She kept her precious car on her desk at work, reminding her of her father, and fond memories she had playing with the gift as a child.

On her 35th birthday, her dad gave her a little gift. It was box, wrapped with a beautiful, yellow bow. As she opened it, she saw a little, yellow Lamborghini, almost the same exact one she got as a young girl. He kissed her and said, “I am so proud of you. And, no matter what, I always will be.” As she pulled the car out of the box, she realized it wasn’t a hot wheel, it was key chain, with a key dangling at the end.
It was to a real yellow Lamborghini.

Confused and shocked, she asked her father what it all meant. He told her, “I have been watching you your entire life driving and treasuring this little hot wheel. Caring for it, loving it. Sure, there were times you got it sticky, or ran it into some stuff...even seasons it was misplaced or sat on the nightstand. But I thought this year, I would see if you would want to take a real one for a spin. I have been saving for years and would love to go on an adventure with you before it’s too late.”

“But you don’t have to. I understand what I am asking is scary. It’s not part of your plan. You could even get hurt. And in order to drive, you will have to let a lot of stuff you love, go. But if you trust me, I have a great adventure planned for us. And, I will be with you the entire ride. Who knows, we might end up right where we started. But you will be changed forever.”

November 19th is my 35th birthday.

And I feel my Father is inviting me into a grand adventure and he has offered me the keys to a risky, scary, beautiful ride. He’s charted our course, and now He’s asking me to drive. And, I am terrified, but know that my Father’s with me.

I don’t just want to tell stories. I want to live an amazing story. I want to look back with as few regrets as possible. I want to be a Christian that says yes to God when it is risky and uncomfortable and unknown. I want to be a mom that says yes to her children and makes the most of the time she has with them. I want to tell anyone who will listen that God is in the business of redeeming pain. That if we choose to change our perspective, if we choose a posture of surrender, if we wade into our brokenness and imperfection, he will turn it into something beautiful for ourselves, and the world.


God's Perfect Timing and Transracial Adoption: A Guest Feature by Sarah Alm

We met the Alms years ago while both serving in youth ministry. Sarah and her husband, Jason, were on the junior high team, and Justin and I were on the high school team. After years of arm twisting and a lot of things out of my control, to my joy, they joined the high school team. Sarah is always up for anything, the crazier the better. I will never forget Summer of 89, our freshman retreat, when she played "buck-buck." I don't think I ever laughed harder than that day. She has been there to catch my tears, to offer a listening ear, and she shows up, which is a big deal to me. She is the girl I get into the most trouble with, and maybe am the most myself with. She just has a way of bringing out the best in others. In fact, we affectionally call her Switzerland because she is everyone's friend.

Sweet Sarah wrote this blog post for me back in August and for some reason, to which I have no idea until now, I haven't posted it. But I guess it is perfect timing. 

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In Sarah's words:

My journey to plan B has brought me through deep sadness, but has also lead me to great joy. The road of life can be dark and bumpy, but through those times, I’ve learned that God can be trusted and is in control. Here’s my story…

I was born when my amazing birth mother was just 16 years old. She was not able to raise me, so she made the selfless decision to choose adoption. I was adopted by my mom and dad when I was 2 weeks old. My parents were actually living out their plan B, as well. They were unable to get pregnant, so they chose to build their family through adoption. They first adopted my brother, and then 3 years later, they adopted me. I remember my mom saying that she was thankful for her infertility, because without it, they wouldn't have me or my brother. I was raised in a home where adoption was talked about often and celebrated.  
Fast forward to my adult life. My husband Jason and I were married in 2006. We always wanted children and our plan was to have a few biological children and then adopt in the future. Because I was adopted, it was always something we wanted to do. In 2009, we unexpectedly got pregnant. We weren't "trying" yet, but it was a happy surprise. Right away, we found cute ways to tell the future grandparents and started taking side pictures to document my future growing belly. Being a mom had been my lifelong dream and I was so excited it was finally happening. I couldn’t wait to outgrow my clothes and feel our baby move. 

Our excitement came to an end about 7 weeks into my pregnancy when I miscarried. This was the beginning of a very dark couple of years in my life -- I went through a deep depression. During this time, God placed very specific people in our lives to help us through, and between that, counseling that Jason and I were getting, and a class at our church called VP3, I was able to let go of my plan for my life and search for God’s plan. During this time, Jason and I very clearly heard God telling us it was time to start the adoption process. 
One of the things our adoption agency asked us is if we would be open to transracial adoption. Right away, we said yes. We knew that God was going to bring us our child and that is all we cared about. One of the classes we had to take from our agency was a transracial adoption class. In it, they showed us a video of grown kids who were different races and all adopted by white parents. They talked about how they all continually struggled with their identity, and in some cases, resented their parents. I left the class in tears. I didn't ever want our child to struggle with those issues or resent us. We prayed about our decision, and talked to our friends who are in a transracial family. After that, we knew God was leading the way and we felt total peace. So after a year of never-ending paperwork, interviews, and fundraisers, we were finally on the adoption list!
Our lives changed forever on July 26, 2012. I got a phone call from our adoption agency. Our case worker said that we had been chosen by a birth mother. She then asked if I was sitting down. That’s never usually a good question, but in our case it was. She told me that the baby was born yesterday -- an African American baby boy, and that the birth mom wanted to meet us that night before she signed the papers in the morning. Once I got all my ugly crying under control, we got in the car and drove to meet her that night. We hugged and cried and talked for a few hours. When we were getting ready to leave, we asked her what do you want us to know about raising an African American child, and she responded, "Take care of his hair and don't let his skin get ashy." 
Once we said our goodbyes, Jason and I drove home in total shock. We were going to go pick up our son in the morning and bring him home. Obviously, I didn't sleep at all that night. The next day we drove to the adoption agency and brought our son Luca home. I have never had a day in my life filled with so much love and rejoicing. Our house was constantly filled with friends and family providing us with all our baby needs, food, and even cleaning our house. They all shared in our joy because they too had been praying for this baby boy long before he was born.
Luca is now three and I am so grateful that I was chosen to be his mom. The past 3 years have been such a learning experience for me.  One of the hardest things for me to overcome was my own anxiety when people would stare at the store or ask me questions about Luca being mine. Most people mean well and are just curious. It took time for me to learn and understand that, and it’s important that we teach Luca to navigate those questions too. We want him to grow up to be a confident black man who loves the Lord - that is what we pray for.  
This story talks about my plan B, but the reality is that this was God’s plan A and we are so thankful that He is the one who brought our family together. We are in the process of trying to adopt again. This time, we have already had 2 failed adoptions and so it has been emotionally difficult, but we have faith and great peace that God is once again molding our family and will bring us together in His perfect timing. 

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Perfect timing, indeed. Little Eva Noel was born Christmas Eve, 2015. They were notified that their profile had been selected and the birth mother would like to meet them. The first time they were supposed to meet, she canceled. They were trying not to get their hopes up Jan 3 as they made the 3 hour drive, unsure of what was to come. Twelve hours later, Eva came home.


Wake Up: A New Year's Resolution

I love “new,”  don’t you? The smell of a new car or fresh paint.  A new outfit.  A new gadget. New is fresh. Clean. Full of potential. Not outdated or damaged. Like a new year’s resolution, you try your best to keep it that way.  No feet on the carpet. No food in the car.  But after awhile, “new” fades. It wears off like a manicure. It wasn’t intentional; life just happens. And over time the daily wear and tear starts to show. The new car now smells like french fries. The paint has battle wounds full of war stories from kids, furniture, and pets. The gadget becomes outdated and soon you find yourself back to chasing “new” again. 

And, new can be scary. Especially scary when you are trying something new. Like being the chubby girl in the spin class. Or turning a hobby into a profession. Or making a better lifestyle choice that has a long history of failed attempts. Routine is predictable and predictable is safe and safe is easier and easier is comfortable. “Can’t fail if we don’t try,” we reason. And I don’t know about you, but I have a tendency to give up if I fail. That’s why I do better with allowing cheats versus perfection. I just have to make sure I don’t cheat more than I’m honest.

And for a few of us, “new” marks one step closer to a hard reality of what is to come. 

So when it came to New Year’s Day, I wanted to make changes. Lists of changes. Color coded on a spreadsheet, of course. Work out, eat better, be nicer, and the like. Good goals. And I am going to work on those, but something bigger kept rising to the surface. Because after all, new fades and it’s scary. Which is why I always end up in December with the worst version of myself, counting down the days to starting over, failing, and giving up.

Maybe this new year, “new” isn’t something I need to chase or be paralyzed by.  The definition of new is “something already existing but seen, experienced, or acquired recently or now for the first time.” You guys, something already existing but seen now for the first time! That’s it! All day I have been searching for a way to describe what I want for 2016 and that is exactly it. I want to see, experience and acquire things that already exist, like God, and the people around me, and existing talents to develop, and interests worth exploring. I want to become a professional noticer, a student of the stories in my every day that already contain beautiful discoveries I have overlooked or rushed by in year’s past.

I don’t want more, I want to wake up.  Wake up everyday grateful. Fully awake and present instead of busy and numb. Nothing stays new but change.

Be alert, be present. I’m about to do something brand-new.
    It’s bursting out! Don’t you see it?
There it is! I’m making a road through the desert,
    rivers in the badlands. 

Isaiah 43:19