An exceptional child is one that is different in some way from the “normal” or “average” child. The term “exceptional child” includes those with special problems related to physical disabilities, sensory impairments, emotional disturbances, learning disabilities, and mental retardation. Most exceptional children require a lot of understanding and patience as well as special education and related services if they are to reach their full potential of development.
It is estimated that one out of every ten children in the United States is an exceptional child, representing a total of nearly eight million children. However, it is difficult to determine the number of exceptional children in a given category for many reasons. The definitions of handicapping conditions are often ambiguous. Diagnosis of a condition may overlap with another condition or the diagnoses may change over time. Many exceptional children remain undetected and often parents resist having their children identified as exceptional because of the stigma attached with labeling.
Families with children who have special needs are just like other families in many ways. These “ordinary” families can take many forms: traditional; single-parent; multi-cultural; and blended. They are also of various socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds.
Effect on the Family
Having a child with special needs can throw family members into a situation that may make their lives different from those of other families. The birth of an exceptional child into a family requires considerable adjustment on the part of family members. Most parents plan for and expect healthy, happy babies. When an impairment is immediately obvious, the reaction is often traumatic and families may progress through a grief process similar to the process followed in death and dying.
A period of denial may offer parents and family members time to become accustomed to the pain and disappointment that the changes in family expectations bring. The process may continue through a period of sadness, intense anxiety, anger and guilt.
There may also be a process of mourning the death of the dreams and expectations held for a child and over the loss of a healthy child. With proper help and support, most parents eventually begin a period of gradual adaptation and reorganization in which they gain confidence in their ability to care positively for the child in a rewarding way.
An acceptance stage is composed of a series of more positive steps. Parents become more aware that the child is different. They recognize that there is a problem that needs to be dealt with. They begin a search for the cause of the problem, a cure, and recognition of the child’s limitations. This process usually brings about total acceptance of the child as a valued family member.
Children share in the anticipation and excitement of a new baby in the family. They also share in the grief and pain that comes with the birth of an infant with a disability, as well as the acceptance of the child as a valued family member. Growing up in a family with an exceptional child can be a valuable experience for parents and siblings alike.
Children and adults may fear people in wheelchairs or people who look or speak differently just because they have never had experience with an individual with a disability. Siblings of exceptional children, however, develop a greater tolerance for individuals who are different. Because they have had a firsthand experience with someone who is different, they seem to be more accepting of others who are different.
Siblings also seem more aware of the harmful effects of prejudice. Again, because they have experienced for themselves the reactions of others to their brother or sister with a disability, they know what prejudice can do.
Understanding and Compassion
Having lived with an exceptional child, siblings often develop more understanding and compassion for others. Sharing in the continuous care of an exceptional child, especially in a loving family, may stimulate a brother or sister to go into a career of helping other people.
In many families with an exceptional child, there seems to be a special sense of family closeness. If the family works together and shares the responsibility for the child, this seems to draw the family closer together. This seems to be more apparent in larger families where there are more people to share the caring.
Families with exceptional children can do several things to encourage the positive acceptance and help from siblings. They need to provide accurate information to siblings about the disability and help them develop realistic expectations for the development of their brother or sister. Families can also help the children work through their feelings and emotions concerning the special child. Normal reactions that need to be acknowledged can include resentment, fear, embarrassment, and guilt. These problems, if not acknowledged and expressed in appropriate ways, may cause long-term problems.
Tolerance and Interest Level
Parents can also help siblings become involved in the child’s program and give them opportunities to develop specific skills to interact with the sibling with the disability. In doing this, they need to keep each child’s tolerance and interest in the disability in mind. Parents also need to remember that siblings must live their own lives and not expect them to devote themselves to the child with a disability as a parent might do. Every child needs quality time alone with a parent.