By Sarah Collins Prince
When our son Keller was diagnosed with autism at 1 ½ years old, our first thought after the diagnosis started to simmer into our exploding brains and breaking hearts was, how will we tell his big sister? Kieren was 3 when her brother was born, and she always took on the role of bossy big sister and proud second momma. Now she was five years old, on the cusp of leaving preschool and heading to ‘big’ school, and we were shaken to know suddenly that her sibling life would now inevitably look utterly and wholly different from any of her peers or family. She now had a little brother with autism.
Of course, she had slowly gotten used to accommodating our lives for Keller’s different behaviors and eccentricities, but knowing he now had an autism diagnosis made it certain things were going to get much more difficult and full before they got easier. We knew it meant so much of our attention, finances, and emotional support would need to go to Keller. Would we have enough for her also? Would she miss out? How would this affect her?
Years later, my daughter is now 14 years old and just starting high school where we live in Cape Town, South Africa. Every single year while she was in primary school, she won an award for ‘emotional intelligence’ and was frequently set aside as a kind and generous friend among her peers.
One story really brings her heart to light. In Grade 2, Kieren came home one day and told me about her new friend, Emma. Emma was new in her class and was on the autism spectrum. She had a facilitator but was struggling to fit into her new environment, so Kieren decided to befriend her and help in any way she could. Their friendship continued to grow, and Kieren always made time for Emma in her day. Emma really thrived at their little school, a normal government school that welcomed kids with disabilities so they could be inclusive. Emma went to camp, was in a school play, and began to make beautiful friendships. Cut to the last night of Grade 7. The scene was an important graduation dance and dinner. Kieren was now having mammoth difficulties in her friendships and was being bullied by all the girls she had considered friends. She accidentally showed up late for the dance, and all the other children were seated. She opened the door, and all eyes were on her. Without missing a beat, Emma shouted across the room "Hi Kieren! Come sit by me!" Kieren skipped over to her friend and had a wonderful
This is what it can look like to raise kind kids. Kieren would never have had the deep empathy and awareness she now possesses without a brother on the autism spectrum. But what we thought would take away from Kieren and be to her detriment, as it sometimes can be in families with special needs, became Kieren’s greatest strength. She can immediately spot children on the spectrum, with difficulties or differences, and loves befriending them. She has such a huge heart for them, and is frequently telling me about a new friend she met who was struggling and she wants to help.
All kids can become kind kids. Here are a few tips as you journey with your kids and help them to grow in kindness in all ways.
1. Model acceptance and allyship. Kids learn from watching. Show them how to accept
people with differences and how to step in specifically when people are struggling. It
starts with you! Wherever you are, make it a point to be comfortable with people who
are different, say hello to them, get to know them, and then discuss it afterwards with
your friends. Be intentional!
2. Learn names. In environments you frequent, such as school, church, community groups,
and even the shops, go out of your way to learn the names of people who have disabilities
or needs. Remember that name, and make sure you greet them excitedly every single
time you can. The kids who learned my son’s name captured his heart because he often
felt overlooked or underappreciated.
3. Compliment people with special needs. Children with special needs are often compared
to their peers, and there can be hyperfocus on what they can’t do or are struggling with.
Instead, find out what they love, what they are good at, or what is holding their attention,
and celebrate it. It can make a big difference in the heart of someone who is fighting
4. Celebrate people with special needs. When you see someone who has special needs
accomplishing something that is hard, celebrate with them! Kieren celebrated her little
brother every day of his life as he battled with basic tasks. She still does that now, and it
warms the hearts of her new friends.
My daughter is a model of kindness, and it truly is because of how she learned to love and accept her little brother despite his autism diagnosis. Her heart is forever changed, but I think all kids can work at being more kind! It’s what the world needs today, so parents, let’s raise kind kids together!
Sarah Collins Prince is an American mom, wife, pastor, and author, who has been living in Cape Town, South Africa, for 13 years, working in development and raising the most amazing, wild children. She is an autism advocate, a mother of neurodivergent kids, and neurodivergent and proud herself! She and her family are here to serve and walk alongside families to find joy in special needs.