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by Abigail Van Buren

Special Needs Kids Build Bridges of Understanding

DEAR ABBY: As the mother of a child with special needs, my heart goes out to "Boiling Mad in New Jersey" (July 23). My daughter, "Kate," is also stared at in public. I, too, used to bristle at the unwanted attention, until I began to open up and talk with people. I found most of them to be compassionate and merely curious. Sometimes seeing Kate triggered their memory of a loved one who was affected by a similar challenge.

As often as I can, I take the time to do mini "public service announcements" and chat with folks who linger, look or approach. It's a great way to build a bridge between disabled individuals, who have much to teach, and the non-disabled, who have much to learn. The kids are my favorites. They'll openly ask what everyone wants to know and say what others are afraid to risk saying.

Kate is 16 now, beautiful inside and out. She's pure, loves unconditionally and always forgives. She's our teacher. Please tell "Boiling Mad" that time heals some of the rawness of a fresh diagnosis, and if she'll try to find the best in others, she'll usually be right. -- HAPPIER NOW IN WASHINGTON STATE

DEAR HAPPIER: Thank you for your insightful letter. You are among many readers who shared similar views on transforming a "staring session" into a positive opportunity. Read on:

DEAR ABBY: I worked with special-needs children for a number of years. I actually believe that it is good when people stare. It gives us a chance to help the child learn social skills.

Would "Boiling Mad" prefer everyone pretend her son doesn't exist? How horrible to isolate him like that. It'll make him miserable. The people looking aren't mean, they're just human. Children like to be looked at; it makes them feel important.

Her precious little boy doesn't have only disabilities. He has abilities, too, and developing them should be the focus of every activity she does with him. She'll be amazed at and proud of his growth. -- KATHY IN KNOXVILLE

DEAR ABBY: My child has moderate autism spectrum disorder. Although he looks like everyone else, his extreme behavior brings stares and comments (mostly about my parenting). I now regard it as an opportunity to educate them about autism. I hand them a card explaining it that contains a link to the Autism Society of America.

This tactic, rather than ignoring people, is the way to go. If more people educated others, the stares and rude comments would become smiles and support. -- JON IN BEAVERCREEK, OHIO

DEAR ABBY: I'm one of those folks who "stare" at others. By no means is there ever a bad intent. I'm a people-watcher. I love watching people communicate in different ways, like signing. Whether someone is in a wheelchair or has a visible disability, I value each and every person.

Maybe "Boiling Mad" doesn't understand that many of us are willing to reach out, lend a hand or just be friendly. I wish to embrace, not ignore, and I hope my behavior isn't perceived to be offensive. -- WELL-MEANING AND OPEN

DEAR ABBY: As parents of a daughter with Down syndrome, we often saw people -- mostly children -- who couldn't take their eyes off our Sara. When she asked us why they were staring and we told her it was because she was so beautiful, she decided to do them a favor and introduce herself. In crowded amusement park lines and outdoor events she'd walk over and say, "Hi. I'm Sara. What's your name?" We have had many great conversations with total strangers and met new friends this way over the past 23 years. Today, Sara and her mom speak at conferences all over the world promoting the hiring of people with disabilities. -- PROUD DAD IN VIRGINIA

Good advice for everyone -- teens to seniors -- is in "The Anger in All of Us and How to Deal With It." To order, send a business-size, self-addressed envelope, plus check or money order for $6 (U.S. funds only) to: Dear Abby -- Anger Booklet, P.O. Box 447, Mount Morris, IL 61054-0447. (Postage is included in the price.)