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One of the many stressors parents of children with special-needs experience is taking their child into public places. Often, an outing is anything but easy just due to the nature of their child’s abilities, disabilities, temperament, and other factors. But the very worst part for many parents (myself included) is the unsupportive and sometimes judgmental comments received from members of the public.

If you’ve read some of my previous blogs, you already know I’m the parent of two children on the Autism Spectrum and two “typical” children. This topic is very personal to me as I’ve felt the sting of public criticism many times, especially when my children were younger. What prompted me to write about this topic is that it is nearly universally shared among parents with children with special-needs. I have attended support groups for parents and also have many friends who have children with special-needs and this topic almost always surfaces. Many members of the public choose to comment about our children whether their disability is “invisible” (such as autism) or “visible” (such as a child in a wheelchair).

Please allow me to share a little more about my own experiences. When my son was a pre-schooler, he was truly unable to be still. He is very much a sensory-seeker and was extremely challenging in public. My greatest fear was that he would run off. He had to open and close every door and flip every light switch. A few years later, my third child, a daughter, was diagnosed with classic autism. She would scream in stores. I now understand that the fluorescent lighting and intercom noise was more sensory input than she could handle. As you can well imagine, these kinds of incidents occasionally earned me some criticism from the public. Since autism is an “invisible” disability, most were comments about my poor parenting skills.

Parents of children with more “visible” disabilities are not immune to public comments, however. My good friend Anne* has a son with a genetic disorder that causes him to have very limited mobility and speech. The question she gets most often in public is “what’s wrong with him?” Ouch.

Even back in bible times, people were quick to judge a person with a disability. The disciples encountered a blind man and asked “who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:3) Many people today still wrongly believe parents are at fault when a child has a disability.

Criticism of any kind is hard to take, and most of us have some fear of being perceived negatively. So how do we handle it when we receive criticism in public? You have some choices about how to respond.

  1. Ignore the critic. Calmly collect your child and walk away. Take deep breaths.
  2. Tell the critic: “Thanks for your concern, and I am tending to my child.” You do not owe the person any further explanation.
  3. If you are comfortable, respectfully tell the critic about your child’s diagnosis. Hopefully, this spreads awareness and builds compassion for “special” families.
  4. If you are uncomfortable speaking to the critic or it’s inconvenient to stop and talk, you can have a card or paper on hand to give out. I purchased and used this card from TACA when my daughter was young. I often received a positive response from the person I gave it to. If you can’t find one that best explains your child’s disability, you can write and print one of your own.

Parents of children with special-needs are especially at-risk for depression and anxiety. I urge you to be aware of your feelings and speak to a doctor, psychologist, or other professional if you’re having trouble coping. Raising your child is a blessing but also a lot of hard work. I encourage you to join a support group in your area, such as a Meet Up .

*for confidentiality, Anne is not her real name.

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