Expert Commentary: Special Needs Etiquette

(Editor's note: Valarie Roberts is our manners and etiquette expert on Click here for the rest of her columns and for more information about Valarie.)

The biggest handicap in dealing properly with people with special needs is not the person's impairment but rather, other's awkwardness toward the impairment.

This is something very personal to me because I have a 3 year old son with autism. A confusing thing about autism is that there are usually no physical signs of this disability. Like most children with autism, his language skills have not fully developed and his only means of letting us know if something is wrong is by screaming or crying.

Because of his means of communication, a lot of people look down upon him and me as a mother by scoffing, rolling their eyes or making rude comments. The best thing to do in this situation is to go on with your daily routine without staring or frowning. At this time the parent may even need a smile.

As in all instances try to be part of the solution. Making sure the mother can get her child out to the car safely is the priority, help with opening doors may be the only thing that you can offer.

In order to find out our communities' needs in understanding and dealing with the specials needs of people with handicaps (physical or not), I consulted Maggie Price, the public relations director at our Wendell Foster's Campus in Owensboro. Ms. Price graciously came up with five important things to remember in order to be considerate to our special needs society:

1.) Use "People First" language. Instead of saying someone is an, "autistic child," you would say they are a "child with autism". They are a child first and the disability comes last.
2.) Address questions or comments to the person with the disability and not the attendant. People with special needs like to have eye contact with you and deserve the same respect, courtesy, and kindness you would offer anyone else.
3.) It's okay to admit you don't understand them when speaking to them. Don't give up; ask them to repeat it. They know that they are hard to understand, but they still like to have a conversation.
4.) Don't focus on the disability, but rather, on their ability. Never assume they are helpless.
5.) Don't discipline your child for talking to people with disabilities or asking questions about them.

It's only natural for children to be curious and important for them to know. Often we are so afraid of embarrassing, hurting, or insulting someone with an impairment that we simply pretend not to notice the impairment at all. Even worse, our own fear of gawking may lead us to pretend the handicapped are invisible.

I hope this can educate the community on what the majority of people with special needs want, and build our confidence in being able to offer that to them.