No matter how old children are, they want to be accepted by their peers. They wish to have friends with whom to each lunch, be invited to playdates or simply talk to someone during school. But what happens when you’re out with your kids, and they see someone who acts differently but has a seemingly typical appearance? How do your little ones respond? Read on to teach your kids about hidden disabilities and ways to instill tolerance.

The problem of intolerance begins when we, as parents, make judgments based on what we think we know. In turn, those judgments are passed on to our children. As parents, we think we’re setting a good example and want our sons and daughters to follow in our footsteps. Sadly, this is not always the case. Often, we pass judgment when we don’t have all of the information.

I am the mother of two boys, now ages 17 and 20, who have hidden disabilities. Between them both, they cope with autism, obsessive compulsive disorder, anxiety, attention deficit disorder, Tourette syndrome and bipolar disorder. It is a complex mixture of issues to manage. Trust me, I’ve had more than my share of strange looks, rude remarks and feelings of isolation. It’s typical for people in our society to judge what they see. This leads to constant criticism, especially in situations where disabilities are hidden— as such is the case with my boys.

Regardless of age, appropriate social skills are critical to being accepted. People with autism have difficulties verbalizing their thoughts and being a part of the group. They want to fit in but often don’t know how. They may also lack the ability to read body language or pick up on social clues. Someone who has Tourette syndrome may exhibit verbal or physical tics that cause other kids to become scared or confused. A child who suffers from anxiety or obsesses over minute issues is often perceived as strange.

Acceptance begins in the home. As parents, we have so many teachable moments, including the lessons of tolerance and compassion. Rather than shun the person who is different, try to explain to your child that the affected person may be having a stressful time and can’t help himself. Describe how some children have to manage themselves differently because they have challenges handling their emotions.

If you and your family are blessed with good health, be grateful. This could change at any moment. Wouldn’t you want your child’s peers to be understanding if it did? Wouldn’t you want the members of your community to be accepting and understanding?

My children are gifts to this world. They are sweet, caring of others and trustworthy— qualities we want all children to possess. While they have other traits that prevent them from fitting in as easily as most children. It doesn’t make them any less special or less deserving of getting the most out of life.

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