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Talking About Our Children: A Guide for Family and Friends


Having a child with developmental or physical differences can be incredibly difficult. What can make the situation harder are loved ones not understanding how to talk about it respectfully. This article is intended to provide some insights on what language is appropriate when discussing children with intellectual disorders.

Always do: person-first language. What can be perhaps most frustrating to parents (and limiting to children) is speaking about children’s difference as a defining characteristic. For example, some people may say “He’s an Autistic child” which put his diagnosis before his description as a child. We want to do the opposite, instead saying “He’s a child with Autism.”

This may seem like a minor change to some readers, but for families and caregivers who passionately love their children, it’s incredibly important. It means that children with challenges are children first. The disability is not what defines them, it’s a part of who they are, in addition to the other parts that make them unique.

For more information on “person-first” language, click here.

Never use “the R-Word”. It was once appropriate for doctors to give the diagnosis “mental retardation”, however, this has become phased out because, quite plainly, it’s incredibly offensive.

In the past few years, the “r-word” has been eliminated from medical literature – you’ll only find it in old studies when it was considered an appropriate description. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), the ultimate authority on mental disorders, has since replaced the term with “intellectual disorder.”

This term has also fallen into slang as a negative term for someone who is not very smart. It’s safe to say that if a word is commonly used in a derogatory way, it’s not a good idea to use it to describe a child with special needs. Don’t use it. Children with intellectual disorders are capable of great things; they just may need other supports or modifications to achieve the same ends as others.

If you’d like more information on this topic, you can find some great resources from the “R-Word Campaign“.

So what are the right words to use? There’s a variety of appropriate words you can use to describe children with special needs. In addition to “intellectual disorder”, it may be appropriate to use:

  • special needs
  • learning differences
  • developmental differences
  • diverse learners

Avoid the “norms”. One smaller point of contention is the use of the word “normal” such as “Does your son go to a normal school?” It seems to suggest that because most kids do it, anyone who falls outside that is “abnormal”. Just because most people act a certain way, doesn’t make it “normal”. For a long time, it was normal to believe the world was flat! Instead, you may want to use words such as “typical” or “mainstream” as they more clearly describe it’s what most people are doing vs. making a judgement on those who don’t conform.

 Final thoughts. Some parents may want to discuss their child’s diagnosis and details about their experience as a parent. Others may not. A good tip is to follow a parent’s lead and trust your instincts when asking questions. A good starting off approach is to ask what words the family uses to discuss their child, as they may be different than what’s written here.

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