In my last piece, I advocated for engaging and spreading compassion to families with special needs children when we encounter them. I’ve decided that I really can’t speak to the way to engage with other special needs children other than to approach them with compassion and to be unafraid, willing to engage. I can, though, give specific suggestions for relating to Sophie.
*If you want to talk to Sophie, it’s best to get her attention by saying her name, even repeatedly, or by getting down into her line of sight. Most of the time Sophie assumes that you are not talking to her, so if you actually are, you need to make sure she knows it. I imagine that this is true for other special needs children as well. Many are used to being ignored, so intentional conversation may come as a surprise to them.
*You may need to ask Sophie to look at you. I’m not sure if she will comply or not. But I’ve noticed that she gets away with ignoring people because she’s little and doesn’t often look up at them. It’s harder for her to ignore someone if she’s looking at them. But, if she’s not comfortable with you, my guess is that she will hesitate to look at you. And I will back you up. In fact, I already often instruct Sophie to look at the person who is talking to her. My son’s eyes are glued to my face, because in watching my mouth, his brain is learning how to speak. That’s not the case for Sophie, so she’s gotten used to keeping her eyes downward.
*Keep it simple. Since you know Sophie has trouble speaking, then yes/no questions can be helpful. (i.e. Are you excited about ____________. Do you like ________________.) Or, even something that doesn’t require a verbal response like a hand shake, high five or a hug. Sophie can give you a physical response when she sometimes cannot figure out how to engage in conversation.
*If you are talking to Sophie, be ok with the fact that I’m going to prompt her with how to respond to you, and I will interpret her signs. At home, we often have to force her to sign the words, phrases, or sentences for what she wants to express. It’s harder for her that way, it requires more effort, but she has to learn to necessity of communication. In order to teach that, I will prompt her when she’s in conversation with others. If I interpret her signs for you, continue talking to her as if you are understanding her signs rather than shifting to conversing with me about what she’s saying. In those moments, I’m just the interpreter; you are still conversing with Sophie.
*Because Sophie has always spoken with her hands, all her hand movements are very significant. Just like a child becomes bashful and hides in his mom’s skirt and only whispers to another adult, Sophie will “whisper” her signs. Her wave of “hello” is nothing like yours as you try to flag someone down across a crowded room. If she’s nervous, it may just be a slight wave down by her leg. Try to be observant to these little “whispered” signs and acknowledge them. We are teaching her the importance of signing where people can see, but social situations are nerve-racking for her because she’s nonverbal (and probably an introvert like Daddy).
*Talk to your kids about differences. Explain that Sophie talks with her hands, and that they can ask her about it. (You can too!) She loves showing signs when she’s comfortable with the people she’s talking to. Help your kids understand that it’s a difference, but not a reason to avoid, ignore, or think less of Sophie. Encourage them to try signing and help them understand that Sophie can understand anything they say to her (or about her). They can help her by including her even though she’s not speaking as they play. It’s ok for them to ask questions to me, to you, or to Sophie to better understand her or what she’s saying.
I hope that these ideas are helpful as you consider how you, as a part of Sophie’s community, can embrace her, support her, and love on her. She is so blessed by to have a community who loves her so deeply. It touches mama’s heart too.