Debunking myths about children with disabilities

Myths seem to develop quite often when a topic is not well understood. Myths about children with special needs lead to incorrect assumptions. We’ve gathered up ten common myths associated with special needs children and, with the help of experts in the field, debunked them.

1: You can always tell when someone has a disability

There are many disabilities that are not visible to an onlooker. Termed invisible disabilities, they can include mental health disorders, cognitive dysfunctions, and learning differences. According to Brianne Patek of The Ability Center of Greater Toledo, “There are many types of disabilities, each one is different and some are more obvious than others. I think it is important for people to remember that just because a disability is not visible, does not mean it is any less significant than those that are.”

Often times, since the disability may not be noticeable, those facing invisible disabilities face the challenge of others doubting the existence of the disability. For instance, when someone parks in a handicapped parking spot people expect them to get out of the car with a walker or wheelchair, so if the driver or child in the car does not need assistance with walking, an observer may be confused.

2: Children with disabilities cannot lead full and productive lives

Children with disabilities are just as capable to lead full and productive lives as anyone else. The focus should be on the child’s ability, what they can accomplish, rather than on their restrictions. Brianne Patek from The Ability Center of Greater Toledo stated, “Having a disability does not mean one has a poor quality of life.  Anyone with a disability can fully participate in society, if society allows. Many times that is the only obstacle. We all have things we are not good at, but when we focus on what we can do and the positive, the opportunities are endless.” Tonya Scherf, executive director of The Arc of Lucas County, adds “People with developmental disabilities are typically very good employees as they like structure and are good at following rules.”

3: Those in wheelchairs are always confined to that wheelchair       

Not every child who uses a wheelchair requires use of the wheelchair at all times. Some days may require the use of a wheelchair because walking would be too difficult or unsafe. However, there are days when many children can go without their chair. When asked about this myth, Brianne Patek stated, “We like to use the phrase Wheelchair user as an alternative to ‘confined to.’  Wheelchairs are a mobility device that help someone to live an independent life.” An important point to note is that the wheelchair helps create independence for a disabled child. Often viewers may see a child in a wheelchair as having to depend on others, but this is not the case. The wheelchair helps a child maintain their independence.

4: ​Children with disabilities are dependent and always need help

Everyone needs help. No matter where we are in our lives, help from others is always necessary. According to Sr. Mary Sartor, director of education at Double ARC, “Depending on others doesn’t make a person dependent. Some disabilities may require others to provide support and assistance more than others, but the support allows the person to be independent.” She further explained that those with cerebral palsy require assistance with communication, feeding, hygiene, and mobility, but have very social lives and often help serve on the boards at the institutions which serve them. Sr. Mary added that those with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome may need assistance to make decisions; however, they can own their own homes and run their own businesses.

5: A child’s disability defines who they are as an individual

In my interview with Tonya Scherf from The Arc of Lucas County, I felt she said it best when stating, “a disability is something someone has, not something they are. People with disabilities have the same dreams, desires, and goals as those without disabilities.” Sr. Mary Sartor of Double ARC added, “we don’t have autistic kids, but children with autism, FASD kids but persons with FASD, diabetics but persons with diabetes.” A child with a disability is still a child; a child who may have something impacting aspects of their life, but still a child.

6: Children should be taught to not stare or ask questions about a person’s disability

It has always been such a taboo, and an embarrassment for a parent who has a child pointing or asking about someone with a disability. Naturally, it is not very nice manners to point and stare, but asking questions is how a child learns. Sr. Mary Sartor stated, “Asking questions about the disability is not all that bad.  It allows the person to tell their story, humanizes the experience for both parties.”

7: Autism is caused by vaccines

There have been many studies that show no connection between vaccines and autism, however there currently is no known cause of autism. Genetic predisposition and environmental influences are suspected to be possible causes. According to Linell Weinberg, executive director of Autism Society of Northwest Ohio, “The Autism Society wants to move the conversation from ‘cause and cure’ to ‘support’ for the over 3 million individuals in the US who are living with autism.”

8: Autism is a mental health disorder

According to Linell Weinberg, “autism is a developmental disorder of neurobiological origin.” This means that autism normally first appears in childhood, which impacts “normal developmental milestones.” With autism, development can be uneven. The example Linell Weinberg gave was the scenario that a child with autism might start reading before they are potty-trained. There are developmental differences in a child with autism, and no medications.

9: Children with autism are violent

Children with autism may not always be able to express their feelings with words; therefore they use various forms of behavior to voice needs, concerns, and wants. A recent article published by Autism Speaks reminds everyone that “behavior occurs because it serves a function and/or produces an outcome.” Behavioral responses from a child with autism are not a choice. Behaviors can also be in response to previous situations. For instance, if a child got out of something that was difficult by yelling, they may yell again in the future as a way to escape. Looking specifically at aggression in autism, a recent study conducted by at the Kennedy Krieger Institute, found that there is a higher level of aggression found in younger children with autism, which may suggest that growth and learning helps improve aggressive behaviors.

10: Children with autism are violent and geniuses

Children with autism usually want to form a relationship with others, but often do not know how. Some children with autism are also impacted greatly by sensory problems to the point where touch can be painful. Most autistic children are strongly attached to their parents and can easily tell how others feel about them.

As for the idea of autistic children being geniuses, Linell Weinberg states, “Individuals with autism may be mildly, moderately, or severely affected with the symptoms of autism. Likewise, individuals with autism may have a cognitive ability that ranges from severe cognitive disability to genius. Currently, 49 percent of children being diagnosed fall in the average IQ range.”

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