Health & Science

Explaining Invisible Disabilities to Kids

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It’s likely your children already know something about disabilities; maybe they or someone they know lives with a disability diagnosis, or maybe they’ve asked you about differences they noticed in the way someone behaves or moves. But far fewer people have learned about invisible disabilities (ID), which limit or challenge someone’s senses, movements, or ability to participate in daily activities, but are not visible from the outside. 

Invisible disabilities can be neurological, physical, or mental. The symptoms can range from mild to severe, and can be constant, come and go, or be triggered only in certain situations. There are countless disabilities that are hidden, but you and your kids have probably heard of a lot of them—like ADD, autism, depression, asthma, autoimmune disease, or chronic pain. 

Invisible Disabilities Week (this year recognized October 17th-23rd) was started in 2014 by the Invisible Disabilities Association, and was created to help raise awareness, education, and support around ID. Not only is teaching our kids about ID a great way to support this community, it’s also a path to raising more empathetic and compassionate kids.

Invisible disabilities present unique challenges

Since others are unaware of their condition, the needs of people with ID are often unrecognized or not acknowledged. In some cases, people might even accuse those with ID of “making it up” or claim their disability is all in their head, just because there’s no obvious physical sign of their disability like a wheelchair or communication device.

Kids with ID feel the impact of this, too. According to the National Education Association (NEA), students with ID face challenges in the classroom that might not be addressed—or might even might draw disciplinary actions—if teachers or administrators aren’t informed of the diagnosis and related symptoms. As the NEA illustrates in this video, it’s all too easy to overlook or misinterpret behaviors and social cues if you’re unaware of the impact someone’s ID has on them.

In cases like these, one might assume a child with their head on their desk is bored or disengaged, when actually they’re experiencing fatigue related to diabetes. Students who seem distracted might face discipline for not paying attention, when in fact they have ADD and simply have a hard time staying focused. Fellow classmates might resent or pick on a child when they see that child getting what’s perceived as “special treatment” (like a desk in another quiet room for taking tests) that’s actually just a necessary accommodation for a condition like anxiety.

Ways to help

Talk to kids

One of the best ways to support people with ID is to talk to your kids about it. Even if you don’t personally know anyone who’s affected by ID, making sure your kids know that compassion is an important family value will help ensure your kids grow up to be empathetic adults. Plus, remember—you won’t know if someone around you has an ID unless they tell you! So underscoring the concept that we don’t know all the underlying reasons someone might have different behaviors or needs than we’re used to will go a long way. Not sure where to start? Check out our simple script for explaining ID to kids.

Get accommodations

If your child has an ID diagnosis, advocate for them within their school to get accommodations and modifications to help them learn and engage more easily. For reference, accommodations are changes to the standard way students learn—this might include allowing a child with dyslexia to listen to the audio version of the same book their classmates are reading, or a child with ADD getting more time to complete an assignment the class is working on. Modifications are changes to what the student is actually expected to learn—for example, being given a shorter homework assignment compared to peers, or being assigned a different book to read. 

Talk to your child’s teachers about what types of changes might help your child do their very best. Even if your child doesn’t have a formal Individualized Education Program (IEP) or 504 plan, there are informal arrangements that can be made. Advocate for your child, and teach them how to advocate for themselves, too.

Raise awareness

Teach others what you’ve learned! Strike up a conversation with other parents online, ask your child’s principal if the school offers training on ID to teachers or if there’s time to share some information on ID at the next school assembly, or participate in Invisible Disabilities Week activities. Spreading empathy and awareness is a great way to support those with ID, and to strengthen your whole community.

Robyn is Editor-in-Chief at ParentsTogether and is co-author of several NYTimes bestselling anthologies. She lives in southern Michigan with her husband and five children.