Children who are exposed to people with disabilities — either directly or indirectly — have more positive attitudes about those with special needs, researchers say.

In a survey of 1,520 kids ages 7 to 16, researchers found that increased familiarity with those who have disabilities led to less anxiety and better attitudes.

“We have known for some time that integrating children with disabilities into the regular classroom can improve attitudes. What we have established here is just how much of a difference a greater presence in day-to-day life makes,” said Megan MacMillan of the University of Exeter Medical School in England who presented the findings Thursday at the British Psychological Society’s annual conference.

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To assess their attitudes, the children were surveyed about their feelings and level of contact with people with disabilities.

Even in cases where kids did not have direct contact with a person with a disability, but observed or heard about a friend’s interaction with such an individual, researchers found there were benefits, with children showing reduced anxiety about those with disabilities and increased empathy.

MacMillan said the findings indicate that promoting further interaction between typically developing children and those with special needs could help reduce discrimination.

“Improving attitudes can have long-lasting effects and can help children with disabilities to succeed,” MacMillan said.

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