08/21/2014 05:03 pm ET Updated Oct 21, 2014

Yes, My Child With Special Needs Understands You -- Please Talk To Him

Ellen Seidman

"How old is he?" people ask me.
"Ask him!" I say.

"Which flavor does he want?" the guy at the ice cream shop asks.
"Ask him!" I say.

"Would he like a balloon?" the lady at the bank asks.
"Ask him!" I say.

It's a phrase I've been repeating a lot lately: Ask him. Ask him. Ask him. Because again and again, people assume that Max is incapable of responding because of his special needs.

I took this in stride when Max was younger. Asking a little kid's mom a question for him is commonplace. But now that Max is a big kid, it gets to me. Max knows what's up. And he is more than able to answer questions, let alone simple ones.

His answers, people can't always understand. Max sometimes doesn't have his speech app handy, which speaks words for him. So I, Max's faithful translator, immediately pipe up:



Yes, do you have a fire truck balloon?

The fact that people presume inability when it comes to Max says something about society's perceptions of people with disability. It's as if his cerebral palsy consumes all of him, rendering him wholly incapable, rather than giving him some challenges.

Of course, I am glad for the times when people want to talk with us, even if they are not speaking to him. People who stare or glare from a distance are rude. Max doesn't notice them, though; it's far harder to ignore the fact that people are speaking over you. It doesn't bother him now, and I hope it never does. How awful would it be if it made him feel inferior? How awful would any of us feel if people we met ignored us?

Technology continues to evolve; last night, I found out about an app at Indiegogo, Talkitt, that translates unintelligible speech into understandable speech. It could be a game-changer for kids and adults with speech impairment.

But I like to think that people can evolve, too.

So here's my ask:

When you meet a kid with disabilities, talk to him, not just his parent. If he doesn't seem up for interacting, back off. If he can't answer with words, don't feel badly. Some children may not speak like so-called typical kids do, but they are communicating. Other children may only be able to respond with their eyes but make no mistake, they are also communicating.

Presume cognition. Presume understanding. Presume ability.

This post originally appeared on Love That Max. More from Ellen Seidman:

• When programs won't accommodate kids with special needs
• I don't mean to hurt people with disabilities even though I call them stupid, people say
• Teaching your kid with special needs to be his own champion