Joshua “Are You Sure You’re Doing That Right?” Eleveld started school this week! He loves it, just like last year. And I love hearing him tell me the highlights of his day (spoiler: it’s usually the playground).
For those of you not in The Know, Josh is part of the Gwinnett County Special Education Pre-K program. The goal is to prepare him for big boy school (even though I’m pretty sure he’s already in his forties, mentally speaking) and make sure that he has the tools to succeed in a typical classroom down the line.
Which leads me to yesterday. 2:00, elementary school lobby, sitting awkwardly because I am not sure if I am supposed to be sitting, but there is a chair here, so why not? Another woman sits next to me and tells me she’s waiting for her son. I say I’m doing the same, and after we chat for a minute, she asks why I’m not in the car rider lane like most of the parents picking up their kids. I tell her my son is in the Pre-K class, and I come in to get him, like most of the rest of the parents in his class.
She makes a face. Not a disgusted or angry face. It was a face I have internally termed the “Poor Little Buddy” face. It’s the face people make when they want to convey that they are sorry for you and your situation.
“Oh,” she says, the Poor Little Buddy Face alive and well, “he’s special needs, huh?”
I smile and affirm her suspicions. Sometimes I take the time to explain more about Joshua, but as I had just met this woman moments before and as I was positive Josh would be in the lobby any second, I just say yes.
She continues speaking.
“Oh, well, that’s okay! We need those special needs guys, you know?”
I do know, actually.
I think my response was to smile again and agree. I don’t totally remember because, to be honest, she caught me by surprise. It’s okay that some kids have special needs? Does that really need to be spoken?
Apparently, it does. Not because it’s a lovely thing to hear – it’s not – but because it is indicative of a much larger problem: The idea that having special needs is actually not okay.
Look, the unknown is scary. I get that. Kids or adults with special needs can be an unknown quantity if you’re not part of that world (and sometimes if you are), and I respect that. But if there is one thing I have learned about all types of children, it’s this:
Children are listening.
They can hear you. They can read your body language. They understand a smile. And they know when you’re afraid. They see your Poor Little Buddy face and they make the connection that their special need or the special need of their sibling requires pity. But pity is the last thing my son needs.
Read these next words carefully: I am not angry at this woman in the school lobby. I am not offended or upset with her. She seemed like a lovely mom who loved her kids. When Josh did arrive in the lobby, she greeted him and spoke with him. He liked her. She liked him. I am not out to demonize anyone.
I am out to educate everyone. My goal here is to bring an awareness to the fact that we are afraid of special needs. You can pretend that isn’t true, but, frankly, you would be wrong. And we need to change the conversation around it, and the way we teach our children to react to it.
Special needs are okay. Just like brown hair is okay, and being tall is okay, and being afraid of spiders is okay (that one is REALLY okay). There is a special need in all of us, and we all want to be accepted. Not pitied. Not told that we’re accepted in spite of our shortcomings, or in spite of our need. Accepted for the way we are.
Do you want to know the secret to special needs kids? Treat them like every other kid. Recognize a need is there, find out how you can fill it, and encourage them and educate them and smile at them. My daughter has no “official” special needs, but I spend part of every single day pretending to be a puppy with her, because that’s what she’s into. That is her special need. So I try to meet it.
These kids (and adults) need you. They need you to be their advocate, to be a positive influence on them, to reassure them that everything will be okay. Find the balance between “special” and “typical” – and leave your pity out of it, pretty please.
So it is okay that my son has some extra special needs. It is okay, and I know that. I’ve always known it, because it’s an essential part of who he is. And I know you don’t always know what to say. That’s okay, too. I’m not perfect, either. None of us is – and that’s kind of the point.