Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Every child illuminates the world in his own way


Every child is unique. Essentially, people know that. But welcoming those unique traits when they belong to a kid with special needs is sometimes a whole other matter. Too often, kids and adults don't realize just how amazing "different" can be. Which is why it was heartening to sit in a room with hundreds of people the other night and applaud those differences, especially since Max (in his full Fireman Max glory) was in a video that opened the evening. There he is the big screen, above, with two volunteers including the very adoring June on the right.

Max has been a part of The Friendship Circle since he was a little guy. This nonprofit offer programs for kids with special needs, as well as Friends at Home in which teen volunteers visit. What can you say about a group whose motto is "Do Amazing Things"? Exactly. They believe in our children. Sunday night's banquet was to honor people who've made significant contributions to The Friendship Circle, and to raise excitement and funding for the building of a new Lifetown. The original, which exists in West Bloomfield, Michigan, has a Life Village where kids can practice skills for the real world in authentic settings, including going to the dentist and doctor, buying tickets at a movie theater and even navigating traffic signals.

"Every person has their G-d-given talents," Executive Director Rabbi Zalman Grossbaum told the crowd. Every person, he said, illuminates the world in their own way. My heart beamed as I heard the words. And ached a little, too. Because if only more people saw our children that way, life wouldn't be such an uphill for them—or parents like us who are paving (and on occasion bulldozing) a road for them to travel on. Oh, there are so many ways to embrace the uniqueness of a kid with special needs, none of which involve much effort or understanding of any magnitude. Really, it's mostly common sense.

It starts with not feeling flustered or pity-flooded by the wheelchair, the walker, the atypical speech, the flapping, the [fill in the blank]. To the child in front of your eyes, his special needs are an organic part of who he is. He doesn't sit around feeling sorry for himself. In fact, if you ask Max if he has cerebral palsy, he'll readily say "Yes!" and then he'll want to know what you have. 

Once you can get past the pity and see the actual child in front of your eyes, the not-big secret is this: Follow the lead of the kid you're interacting with. You know, as you would with any kid. Say "hello." Make small talk. Tell about yourself. Joke. Ask questions, simple ones requiring only a "yes" or "no" answer if necessary. If a child isn't comfortable with eye contact, don't make eye contact. If a child seems adverse to touch, hands off. When in doubt, ask the parent about what to do.

Teach your children to do the same, ideally discussions you have at home so that when they do meet a kid with special needs, they are not unsure or unnerved. Make it an ongoing conversation, same as you discuss race, sharing your toys, treating others well or any number of chats you have with kids over the years with the goal of raising Good People. Happy beginnings like this one, in which a little girl approaches a boy with autism at a pool and plays with him, are all too rare.

That's for starters. Because then, hopefully, you—and your kids—try to get to know this child you see in the park, at the playground, at parties or in school. And you realize this kid has a great sense of humor. Or he's really smart. Or he's amazingly cheerful, because that's his natural disposition. Or he's very knowledgeable about, say, fire trucks or Minecraft or Lego or street lamps or the galaxy or whatever. Or he loves to sing and dance in his own way, because hey, every kid does that stuff in his own way and it's fascinating to hear and watch the variety that is child-kind.

And you get to know the kid. And you see that he's unique not because he's got a disability but because, like every child, he brings something unique—a whole bunch of unique things, in fact—to this world.


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