Addressing “The Look” — 5 Minutes for Special Needs

Addressing “The Look”

by Maggie


We’ve all experienced “the look” from folks whose mothers apparently didn’t teach them it’s not polite to stare.  Sometimes it really  bothers me.  Sometimes not.  Recently, I had the opportunity to unofficially analyze the look and figure out the difference…. for me! 

I spent a day at the Bronx Zoo with my 3 beautiful children — two of whom share a birthday and an extra 21st chromosome each.  People stared at us all day long!   

I know that identical twins attract a LOT of attention.  Add to that our BIG, red double-stroller and two beautiful boys with almond shaped eyes. We’re hard to miss.  My guess is the twin-thing makes them look and the Down syndrome-thing makes them stare.  Identical twins with Down syndrome is a rarity so it must be as surprising for others as it was for me initially…Still, manners are manners!

So here’s my analysis:

Scenario 1:  Look, Recognize (the Down syndrome), Run:  The “it’s not polite to stare” syndrome comes from folks who aren’t comfortable being around people with special needs. They think they know and have closed their minds to finding out the truth!

Scenario 2: Look, Recognize, Sideways Glance:  Don’t be fooled by the “I’m not looking at your kid” ploy.  They are — at them and me —  and thinking (a) “WOW, She’s old!” (Exacerbated by my old-age paranoia);  (b) “Those boys are too big for that stroller!” (Playing on my “I’m doing it all wrong” paranoia); or (c) “That poor woman [with those less-than-perfect kids]!”  The “Better her than me” syndrome. (And, with an attitude like that, I agree, better me than her!). 

Scenario 3: Look, Recognize, Engage:  The “Embrace the World” minority!  They say hello and ask outright, “Do your boys have Down syndrome?”  Once confirmed, they (a) Regale me with tales of their well-loved relative with DS. (It’s an elite club, ya know!);  (b) Ask intelligent questions about DS.  (Education and an open-mind are a beautiful combination!);  (c) Say, “Boy,YOU have your hands full.”  (To which I respond, “All in good ways!”); or  (d) Say, “You must be very special for God to have given you these kids.”  These are “The Believers.”  (And yes, I believe I am special… these amazing kids make me so… not vice versa!)

Scenario 4: Look, Don’t Recognize, Engage:  The “Good-hearted” crowd.  Unless they’re the ER Doc treating my boys for pneumonia, it doesn’t bother me that these folks don’t recognize that My Boys have Down syndrome because that also means they haven’t judged them!  They engage because they think My Boys are worth their time.  And they’re right!

Scenario 5: Don’t Look:  Who cares?

So in the end, I discovered it’s not the look that bothers me.  It’s the erroneous thinking behind the look.   And, we parents of children with special needs have to figure out how we want to handle “the look” when it happens.  For me, the closed-minded are barely worth the effort, but if I can catch their eye, I give ’em my “the truth will set you free” smile.  It’s a start!  For the mis/uneducated, there is no better education than meeting the face of Down syndrome up close and personal.  I introduce The Boys and let the education begin.  After all, seeing IS believing and My Boys can make a believer out of the biggest skeptic! I choose to engage and educate. That’s my gig.

So how will you address the look?   Will you ignore it?  Get angry?  Or, will you engage and educate?  Every LOOK is an opportunity.

Email Author    |    Website About Maggie

I've become a self-proclaimed novice in the pursuit of [my own] happiness and in finding pockets of peace amidst the chaos of raising my 7-year-old identical twin sons who were blessed with an extra 21st chromosome (aka. Down syndrome) and my beautiful daughter (ADD) who vacillates between being helpful and being 10.

View all articles by


This post may contain affiliate links. When you use them, you support this site. Thank you!
See our Disclosure Policy for details.
1 jollyholly November 28, 2010 at 4:14 pm

I think there is perhaps at least one other scenario possibility:
Look, recognize, smile and still turn away: These people are uncomfortable speaking to all strangers, whether their kids are visibly unique or not, and they don’t know what to say; not from a lack of education or sympathetic experience but from a fear of offending despite their good intentions. They are trying to give us space and freedom to be and do what we need to without questions or comments. They might even be a fellow parent of a special needs child!

I’ve seen a lot of articles here in the past year or so about the looks we get as special needs parents and to be honest it has only made me less likely to speak up when merely glancing can be so offending. Clearly some of us would embrace the speaker and others of us would be bothered and there is simply no way to tell with a momentary look who’s who. If we want others to stop assuming they know our situation at a glance and have the right to offer advice we should certainly offer them the same courtesy and not assume we know their thoughts about us from a look.

I’m not saying the above mentioned categories do not exist, I’ve experienced them too. But maybe as a result of past insults I’ve become too touchy and made the public more nervous instead of better educated. What if what we see as ‘staring’ is really ‘watching’… trying to figure out if we are open to them speaking or if they have correctly recognized our situation? Or what if they are watching to enjoy our children because their own are not with them? What if what we see as ‘running’ is really trying not to interfere or offend? What if what we see as ‘judging’ is really a shy attempt at encouragement? What if some of that unsolicited advice is really a poor communicator trying to share the success or failure of their own experience in the hope of helping? Maybe some people have better intentions than we give them credit for. Maybe we can’t neatly categorize them in a moment any more than we want them to do that with our child.

2 Maggie November 28, 2010 at 9:04 pm

All good points Holly and I too believe in not judging others the way I would prefer my boys and I not to be judged… But I’m talking about a “look” that is better described as an extended and downright rude stare that includes eye contact but NOT a finishing smile. And therein lies the problem. A smile is the universal language for good will and acceptance. These folks DON’T smile even after an extended period of jaw-dropped gawking, even after mutually obvious eye contact, even after I engage. I don’t mind the glance…. I mind the stare that doesn’t end with a friendly gesture. Psychologists have been studying body language forever and it’s been proven over and over again that what one says with his actions belies truer intentions than his words. Any look, stare, gawk that isn’t finished off with a smile can be interpreted as discomfort, non-acceptance, disapproval or worse. Still, I’ve always given everyone who looks, stares or gawks the benefit of the doubt. As such, I’m an equal opportunity engager and educator. I don’t mind the stare if it ends with a friendly gesture of acceptance. After all, that is what we’re after. While I never stare, I do look and I always engage even if it’s just a smile, a nod, a wave or a friendly wish, “have a great day”.

3 Mary E.S. November 29, 2010 at 10:02 am

I do look at everyones children and always smile,because I think all children are wonderful. When one of mine is having a meltdown in public,I know from the looks whether the person can tell my kids are special needs or not.There are very few smiles but if they know,there are comments such as “bless your heart”. Sometimes,they even ask if they can help and those are the ones I thank god for when saying my prayers.They can’t help but just knowing they care is enough to make my week.The dirty looks when my 6ft2in 16yr old has a meltdown can either make me laugh at them or tell them to bite me depending on my mood.As a older mother,I have let people think I’m the grandmother of my youngest rather than spend time informing someone that he’s autistic and yes he’s mine,so go stare at someone else.We all just take our lives,one day at a time and one moment at a time.

4 Maggie January 16, 2011 at 12:07 pm

Mary — thanks for making me laugh (when you said “bite me”). Like you, one moment at a time is all I’ve got in me sometimes ;o). I’ve seen far more “typical” children acting out and answering back in public than children with special needs and I don’t judge them at all. I’m an equal opportunity smiler! Parenthood comes in many flavors… all of which require compassion every now and then!

5 Jenny December 1, 2010 at 2:44 pm

I too have identical twins – I know how much attention typical identical twins (and their big brother). I only had identical twins for one year, and then one of my twins had a severe brain injury due to a choking accident. Now, we have a boy, and girl and a disabled kid. No one EVER thinks my girls are twins at all, much less identical twins. This makes me so sad. When I tell them they are not only twins but identical twins, I get the comment “really? how strange that one is affected and the other not?” Obviously, it’s not strange – brain injury is not genetic! Anyway, our looks are different now, mostly “you have your hands full” and “bless your heart” kind of looks. But generally I’m too busy trying to corral kids and push a wheelchair to notice. Oh well.

6 Maggie January 16, 2011 at 12:20 pm

Jenny — I cannot even imagine what you’ve experienced. It would break my heart to go through what you’ve been through. I can’t imagine losing one or changing either of them… Though, despite looking so much alike, in truth, they’re drastically different people from each other anyway. I do mostly get the “your hands are full” comment and I do appreciate that such folks recognize I’m working it! If they know it’s more and I’m trying, that’s enough for me. I don’t like the “you poor thing” comment though. No pity! I’ll take my life just the way it is… It’s a good one… (OK, maybe with just a little bit more $ LOL). Jenny, stay in touch!

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: