Recently, a friend’s son informed me that at his school kids refer to the special needs students as “handicappers” and “aliens.” As a parent of a child with special needs, this both infuriated and saddened me. Though my son Andrew doesn’t attend that particular school, I can guarantee you that the sentiments towards the kids in the special education program on his campus are similar.
Parents and self-advocates within the special needs community spend a great deal of time and energy trying to bring about awareness and acceptance among the rest of the world. Though we’ve come a long way, the conversation with my friend’s son the other day shows me just how far we still have to go.
And it begins with your kids.
Now, I’m not saying that your son or daughter are part of the problem, but I am saying that they should be part of the solution.
Because when children as young as 2nd grade are referring to their fellow human beings as “aliens,” — already segregating them from the general population because they are different somehow — it’s a sad state of affairs indeed.
Below, five reasons why your child should become friends with someone with special needs. And I’m not just talking about someone they see from a distance and occasionally wave to. I’m talking about encouraging and helping your son or daughter forge a true friendship with someone who is differently abled than they are.
It’s hard for kids to relate to something they don’t understand. And kids naturally fear what they do not know. By having someone in their lives with special needs, they are exposed to the fact that there’s nothing to be scared of. Back when I used to teach kindergarten, Andrew would spend a lot of time in my classroom. It was amazing to watch my students go from confusion — “Mrs. Ashline, what’s wrong with him? Why can’t he talk? How will we understand him? — to realizing that Andrew was a lot like they were: a kid with feelings, a kid who occasionally disobeyed his mother, and a kid with a deep passion for getting glitter on everything.
It’s hard to accept something you know very little about and that’s especially true for young children. Having a buddy with special needs will allow your child to accept that being different doesn’t mean being less valuable and soon they will see everyone as equal members of society. It’s one thing to read a book about people with special needs, but it’s an entirely different thing altogether to invest in a friendship — which is three-dimensional and real — with someone who’s different than they are. It’s a hands-on opportunity to learn that everyone has something to offer in this world.
Helping a friend get their wheelchair up a ramp or get a book off the top shelf; learning sign language in order to communicate with a deaf buddy; slowing down to meet the purposeful gait of someone who’s struggling to otherwise keep up — these are all amazing opportunities for your child to experience compassion for another person, a trait that will come in handy when he or she takes the reins from you and forges a new path in life, filled with fairness for all.
Ah. This is one of my favorites because it applies to most of us adults as well. Ever have a super bad day and then come across someone who’s really struggling? Perspective snaps us back into place, a place of gratitude, and it’s important to be reminded that there are people in this world who fight an uphill battle while we enjoy comfortably coasting along. Perspective is necessary for change; the ability to see that a friend has significant difficulties with a task that comes easily and naturally to your child will allow him or her to really tune into the hardships that special needs children often face. Perspective is the gateway to empathy, and that my friends, can be a game changer.
Once your child has invested in a friendship with someone with special needs, those back portables on campus suddenly become meaningful and any injustice at the hands of peers towards the students in the special education program becomes a glaring warning sign that someone needs to take action. Your child is much more likely to defend and stand up for our special needs children when they’ve seen firsthand how amazing our kids really are, having spent significant time building a relationship with them; not just seeing “beyond” their diagnoses, but embracing them for who they are, just the way they are. Watch as the fire lights in their eyes when they see someone mistreating their new friend. That kind of fire spreads quickly and is contagious, and that’s exactly what we want: to blaze a new world for ALL of our children, a world where the only aliens are the ones we see in science fiction movies.
Jo Ashline is first and foremost mom to her two sons: Andrew, who is ten and has autism, epilepsy, and cystic fibrosis, and who possesses a deep passion for big rigs and shiny soup cans, and Ian, who is eight, loves striped socks and sweatbands, and happens to be the greatest little “older brother” in the world. Jo lives in Orange County, California, and is married to her best friend Mikey. Together they try their best to duck whenever the perpetual doodie hits the fan.
Jo is passionate about writing, especially about her experiences raising her special needs son, and is dedicated to promoting compassion, providing resources and creating a supportive community through her special needs column, This Modified Life with OC Moms for The Orange County Register.
She’s also the lead blogger on The Mom Blog with OC Moms for The Orange County Register and tackles issues relevant to all parents today with honesty, humor, and wit.
Jo writes regularly on her personal blog, A Sweet Dose of Truth, where no topics are off limits. She advocates for children with special needs, pokes fun of family members, candidly explores her past struggles with alcoholism and a slew of other diagnoses that can be found in the DSM IV.
After visiting her personal blog, readers either leave scratching their heads wondering why the heck they just wasted five minutes of their lives on her latest post or spend their days waiting around in earnest, pacing back and forth and threatening to go on a hunger strike if she doesn’t fulfill their lives by offering a steady stream of her opinions and observations.
She hopes it’s mostly the latter.
Jo recently won her very first Journalism Award for Best Feature Article 2012 from The OC Press Club for her piece entitled How an iPad can give a voice to special needs children.
She covets the rare occasion she can finish a cup of coffee before it gets cold, and loves her life in a way that makes other people roll their eyes in annoyance.
© 2012 Jo Ashline. All rights reserved.