Recently, there was commercial aired on TV about useless comments people make to those who suffer with depression, such as – snap out of it; you need to get out more; it’s all in your mind; etc. The reason I like the ad is because it outlines the misunderstandings society has about people challenged with a mental illness. As I raise my mentally disabled grandchildren I often hear similar phrases aimed at them by well-meaning people and find them difficult to ignore. So I’ve put together a check-list for people who are uncertain as to how to converse with children with mental disorders or, at least, how to treat my grandchildren should you ever have the pleasure of meeting them.
- Always make eye contact when you ask them how they are, and speak clearly, but not ultra-slowly. Smile while you count to five, if they haven’t responded within that time, feel free to turn to me for a response.
- Don’t offer to shake their hands. They are mega-cautious around strangers which makes them fearful of non-familiar physical interaction.
- Don’t ask too futuristic questions, like – what are your plans for the weekend? Chances are they can’t remember what day it is, so the word weekend is redundant to them. Keep all questions in the moment, like – How was school today? or, What is your teacher’s name?
- Don’t be offended if they don’t want to talk about you. It’s not because they are disinterested in your likes and dislikes, but rather they are too shy to ask. Instead, relate to them what you like, such as – I love to read books. Do you like books too? But don’t ask them which ones, as they won’t remember titles.
- Compliment them. To hear you like something about them puts them at ease, like – Wow, nice shoes! or, I like your haircut!
- Don’t compare them to non-disabled kids, such as – My son loves Math and he’s very good at it. He won an award last year. I know it’s hard not to boast about what your children are doing, but saying it to a mentally disabled child who struggles with every subject at school is just downright insensitive.
- If you ask them what they enjoy doing, remember to make suggestions as they find it difficult to think on their feet. Don’t ask – What are your interests? Instead, ask – Do you enjoy playing video games? Which kind?- sports? Mario? Can you ride a bike, swim, skateboard, etc? Do you like watching TV?
- Don’t overreact if they say something mildly inappropriate. My eldest granddaughter talks way too much about farts without realizing it makes people uncomfortable. If something unacceptable is said, a simple response like – Let’s not talk about that – accompanied by a smile and followed with a quick change of subject will usually put an end to it.
- Don’t turn to me and begin talking, in front of my grandchildren, about other disabled people you know. For example, don’t say – I know another child who suffers with mental problems. My grandchildren are aware of their disabilities, but not to that extent, and would be offended by such a conversation.
- Don’t be offended if they suddenly run off while you are talking to them. This is their way of telling you they are finding interaction too difficult. Just smile and call – Bye then!
“It is not our disability that is the problem, but rather it is the way our disabilities are viewed by others.”