If you have been reading my blog for a while (hi mom!) you know I have 2 kids with special needs.
My 4 year-old daughter, Calista, has a very rare neurological movement disorder that causes seizure-like activity anytime she is still (car seat, grocery cart, sleeping, etc). She remains VERY active to try to stay out of these "episodes" but overall is a very healthy looking girl and is super social. Although we are unsure of what the future holds as far as her disability is concerned, we are really grateful that she has amazing play skills, is caring, and makes friends quite easily (aside from her diva moments!).
My 6 year-old son, Colton, has high-functioning autism, ADHD, and a speech processing disorder among other things. He has significant social and behavior issues but if very verbal, really smart (he's in kindergarten testing at a 2nd grade level for math and reading), and loves people. Unfortunately for him, "people" (esp kids) don't return the love because he is so "different".
For Colton especially, the best thing for him is interaction with typical peers. Play dates are wonderful for him, but extremely challenging. I am so appreciative of the parents and children who show him kindness, patience and compassion during play dates, during field day, at the park, running errands, etc. but I am constantly frustrated and saddened by those that stare at him or make fun of him (the parents seem to be worse than the kids!!).
I happened to be venting about some of this stuff to Jen today during our walk (long-distance treadmill walking, when we talk on our headsets while we walk since she is in Chicago and I am in NJ) even before I opened email... my good college friend Kristi Thorson, who has a beautiful little girl with Downs Syndrome, emailed me a letter the principal of her WI school district sent out to the community. I was so touched by this letter I wanted to share it with you.
As Kristi stated, "I hope you will read it not thinking just of kids with special needs, but of how we can welcome all people who may not be "just like us" into our lives."
June 2008 The Listening Post
FROM THE PRINCIPAL
Dear Lake Bluff Community,
We had a good year but I want to talk to you about something more important and then get back to that. Perhaps you are the parent of a special needs child? If you are not, for the sake of this exercise, please imagine that you are.
Here goes: You want your child to have all the joy and personal development that a play date could bring, so you speak to the mother of a classmate whom your child talks about frequently. You ask if her child could come over to your house on Saturday morning. The parent you ask looks a bit surprised and tells you that her child is busy on Saturday but promises to call you to arrange a future date. Your child is disappointed about Saturday but is excited about a future play date. The trouble is, the mother never calls and even avoids eye contact when you see her later. Every time your child asks about the play date your heart breaks.
Do you think the situation I just described is rare? I'm afraid that it is not nearly rare enough. We are fortunate to have our children attend a school where human diversity is in full flower. Our children are in classrooms where there is no commonality of race, gender, ethnicity, religion, income, and ability in its many forms. We have a perfect setting in which to help our children develop empathy, understanding, tolerance, and acceptance. But these essential qualities must be developed in the face of the natural human propensity to affiliate with people most like ourselves. If left unchallenged we tend to aggregate ourselves along economic, racial, ethnic, cognitive, and physical stratifications. Civil and compassionate people recoil from any official policy of segregation but consider all of the unofficial segregation we have in our lives.
In our increasingly interconnected world the qualities of empathy, understanding, acceptance and tolerance are basic survival skills for the human race plus they make our lives richer and happier. I would urge you this summer to take opportunities to push your child out of her/his and perhaps your comfort zone. Sit down with the school directory and ask your child to invite someone for a play date that he/she normally wouldn't invite. Think especially about those children with challenges who tend to get passed over socially. Make the world of our children bigger this summer by making it more inclusive. Thank you for thinking about this.
Kirk Juffer, PhD. Principal