Sunday, October 07, 2001

Alive and well

Patiently explain attacks to kids with disabilities

        Within hours after the tragic events that changed our world Sept. 11, parents across the nation undoubtedly shared one concern: How do we tell the children?

        At my daughter's elementary school, the principal responded all day to parents with the information that younger children were simply told that airplanes had crashed and many people died, while junior high children watched the same horrific television coverage their parents were watching in homes and offices.

        Daily, all of us are coping as best we are able while helping our children to assimilate the news of terrorist attacks. While viewing such trauma can be damaging to any child or adult, children with cognitive disabilities can have particular difficulty understanding and processing the disasters that have occurred.

        Children with autism, mental retardation, attention deficit disorder or other cognitive disabilities are particularly at risk, because simply understanding and processing the facts of such horrors can be so complex. Anne Farrelland Daniel Crimmins of the Westminster Institute for Human Development, a University Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities Education, Research and Service at the Westminster Medical Center in Valhalla, N.Y., have developed a guide for helping children with cognitive disabilities cope with the disasters.

        Very young children may experience sleep disturbances, fears for their own safety, anxiety over separation from parents or physical symptoms such as stomach aches.

        School-age children who already experience difficulty in concentration may have even more trouble focusing as well as experiencing nightmares, fear for the safety of loved ones or b obsession with ideas of how the outcome might magically be altered. For adolescents, extremes of such already raging teen emotions as sadness, anger or depression might occur, or more blatant problems such as eating disorders, substance abuse, or an obsession with violent retaliation.

        Children with cognitive disabilities need particular patience and repetition of information to process the horrible news as accurately as possible.

        Children with cognitive disabilities often need extra time to process information when routines remain intact, so disasters of any kind naturally demand additional patience. Drs. Farrell and Crimmins point out that some children may confuse the news stories of the World Trade Center tragedies with the deaths of loved ones or believe that repeated television images means that the tragedy is happening all over again.

        Making sure that all children feel safe is important, and one way to do this is to keep routines as familiar as possible. School, play and extracurricular activities should go on as usual, and exposure to coverage of the disasters should be limited somewhat.

        Encourage children to talk about the events and their own reactions to them. Be clear with the facts you explain to kids with developmental delays and repeat as often as necessary. Keep facts clear and free of abstract language: “Yes, there were explosions and many people died.” “Our leaders are working hard to keep us from war.”

        If someone in the family is flying, be sure to explain that airports are being more careful than ever to keep everyone safe.

        Children who have difficulty with expressive language should be given the chance to draw pictures of what has happened or how they are feeling about it.

        Perhaps the best thing we can do to help kids with cognitive disabilities process such horrors is to be honest with them when we don't fully understand issues ourselves. Make it clear that we all need to help one another with coping and carrying on with the work and play of living.

       Contact Deborah Kendrick by phone: 673-4474; fax: 321-6430; e-mail:

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