Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Max's conversation piece: Winning friends, influencing people

Years ago, I read somewhere about wearing a conversation piece to parties, like a cool accessory or a logo t-shirt, to encourage people to interact with you. I don't know why I never thought to try that with Max, but he did. Quality party mingling was not actually a goal of his, but being a fireman is—why he's been wearing his fireman helmet everywhere lately, helpfully labeled "Fireman Max." It's sparked all sorts of conversation. 

Wherever we went on vacation last week—stores, the pool, restaurants—people would smile at him and ask about it: "Oh, you're going to be a fireman? That's wonderful!" A retired firefighter chartered a little boat cruise Max and I went on one day, and he had a great conversation with Max about going up on ladders and saving people. He asked me about Max's cerebral palsy, a condition he didn't know much about, and Max and me filled him in:

Me: "Cerebral palsy means sometimes your muscles don't do what you want, right?"
Fireman Max: "Yeah!" 
Me: "But you try really hard, right?"
Fireman Max: "Yeah!"
Me: "And you're a smart guy!"
Fireman Max: "Yeah!"
Me: "And handsome!"
Fireman Max: "Yeah!"  

We also met a bunch of people with firefighters in their families. At lunch one day, a woman at the next table leaned over to say hi to Max. Then she told us that she had two brothers who were firefighters, and one of them was "special." He had Aspergers and, she said, "when he first showed up at the fire house, he knew more about the fire trucks than the firefighters did!" 

Also awesome about the fireman hat ($5.72 on Amazon) is that it's encouraging Max to verbalize: 
"I want to be a fireman when I grow up!" he'll tell you, and then tell you again. I'll ask him how old he has to be. "Eighteen!" he'll respond. I'll ask what job he wants to do, and he'll note that he'd like to ride in the back of the truck but he will go up the ladder. I've made it clear to him that when he's with Mommy and Daddy, it's OK to talk with new people we meet.  

I wouldn't say the hat is winning Max points with other kids, who send looks that make it clear they're wondering why a big kid is walking around in a plastic red hat labeled Fireman Max. Actually, Max's best conversation piece with other kids is literally his conversation piece: his iPad speech app. They always think it's cool, then want to try it themselves. 

The hat is making for good exchanges with adults, though. Anytime they strike up a conversation rather than stare is appreciated. And once they engage with Max, they get to see the kid, not just the disability. They meet a boy with incredible joie de vivre—how can you pity him? A kid who may have challenges verbalizing words but who is determined to express himself. A kid who delights in pretend play, because that's what kids do.

"Bye, Max, it was nice to meet you!" people will say.

"No! Fireman Max!" Max will tell them. 

And they'll laugh and say, "OK, bye, Fireman Max!"

"Yeah!" Max answers, and he'll walk away with a giant smile on his face. 


  1. I love that. Reminds me of how much more people are inclined to talk to someone with a helper dog because the dog is like a bridge of common ground.

  2. Go for it! There's nothing wrong with a little ambition.

  3. I have a special need child too, and find myself in public with my son who is 13 and carrying a stuffed turtle. There are plenty of quizzical looks! Your post really hit the nail on the head!


Thanks for sharing!

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