Due to this post from Roni Loren (thank you for the warning, Roni) I’ve decided to remove most photos.
Special needs children are near to my heart. Some of you already know it took us five years to get Grace, and that’s because I have a genetic issue (a Robertsonian Translocation) that increases my chances of having a Downs Syndrome Baby by 12-15%. Doctors believed this was the reason for my 2004 miscarriage and for the difficulty in getting pregnant. When we finally conceived Grace, I was grateful and terrified at the same time. It takes a strong person to raise a special needs child, and I wasn’t sure I had it in me. We had an early screening test that eased our fears, but I spent nine months praying for a healthy baby and promising God that if he gave me that miracle, I wouldn’t press my luck for a second child. Corny, but that’s a big part of the reason I’m against having another.
Grace is a highly intelligent, observant kid who never fails to ask questions at the worst possible time. Her first experience with a special needs person came this past summer. We were grocery shopping, and all of a sudden we could hear someone incoherently shouting in an adjacent aisle. I could tell right away it was a special needs person, and we soon rounded the corner to see a young woman – possibly a teenager – in a wheelchair with various tubes attached. Her affliction seemed to be causing her to shout uncontrollably, and her caretakers had no choice but to shop and let her be.
Naturally, Grace pointed and asked why the lady was shouting, and why she looked so different. One of the caretakers gave me the evil eye and waited to hear my response. My skin actually felt clammy. I didn’t want to offend anyone, and I didn’t want to tell my daughter something negative that she could repeat. But how do you explain something so serious to a five-year-old?
I decided to be as honest as possible.
“Some people have medical problems that make them act differently,” I said. “They need extra love and care.”
My empathetic child studied the girl (who was still shouting and looking completely stressed, poor thing) for a moment, before finally stepping up to her and saying, “it’s okay. I need lots of love, too.”
The caregiver smiled at me, the girl calmed (if only for a moment), and I told Grace how proud I was of her. As we walked away, more questions ensued: why was the girl like that, what caused it, will she get better?
I’m all for protecting our children, but there’s no point in insulating them from the very real issues out there. So I told her in simple terms that sometimes when babies are growing inside their moms, things just go wrong. No one knows the reason why, but doctors do all they can to make things better. Sometimes medicine does the trick, but other times they still need extra help.
She seemed to accept this, and true to form, didn’t forget it. The first month of school, I watched as a special education teacher guided a Downs Syndrome child out of the school. Like most, he appeared happy, but I could tell he had some other issues plaguing him. Some kids stared and gave him a wide berth, but out of nowhere comes Grace. She runs up to him and waves, then tells him she’ll see him tomorrow. He smiled back, and so did the teacher.
“That’s Devon,” Grace informed me. “He’s in our class, but he’s got a special teacher, too.”
And that was all she said. She understood the concept, but didn’t feel the need to single Devon out anymore. I was so proud of her, and so grateful that something I’d said clicked.
When I was a kid, special needs children were whispered about, sometimes teased, and a thing to be feared. Thankfully, things are changing. More and more educators are being taught how to work with special kids, and every generation has increased understanding for those who appear different.
Grace’s empathy only proves that bigotry in all its forms is something taught and reinforced to children by the adults surrounding them. In this world full of turmoil, being honest with our kids and teaching them tolerance of all others is more important than ever.
How do you handle situations like these? If you’re a parent of a special needs child, what advice to you have for other parents?