Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Yep, he's happy, and it's got nothing to do with the special needs

Years ago, someone I loved dearly noted that Max was a smiley baby because he was "simple-minded." This person, who was elderly, did not mean to be awful; the observation was based on the old-fashioned misconception that people with intellectual disability were by nature happy because they lacked the cognition to be otherwise. It's something I think a lot of people still believe.

Max was, indeed, a joyous baby. Today he is a bliss-filled kid, the kind to squeal when he visits his friends at the fire station or when served his favorite dish, mac 'n cheese pie. But he is cheerful by nature. Dave and I are both pretty upbeat people (well, after I've had my coffee), and Max likely got some of that from us. I'm betting he would have been a happy camper whether or not he'd had a stroke at birth. Also: This boy is not ebullient 24/7, as you'd see if you were at our house whenever I ask him to quit watching fire truck videos on YouTube and and he has a hissy fit. Or as is quite obvious when he and Sabrina fight. Or when he doesn't want to do his homework. Or when he's tired. Or, well, you get it.

Perhaps people buy into the special needs happy myth out of pity; they assume that adults and kids like Max have less rich and satisfying lives because of their disabilities, so it's consoling to think that they are jovial. Over the years, I've had total strangers say to me, in a reassuring voice, "At least he's happy!" Yeah, seriously.

It's demeaning to our children to assume that they operate on just one speed, happy. Like any kid, with or without disabilities, Max has a range of moods—and a multidimensional personality. He's considerate, loving, strong-willed, charming, playful, funny, cautious, observant, perceptive, good-natured and friendly...for starters. Most any mom of a kid with special needs could reel off her own string of adjectives. Our kids are so much more than happy.

Maybe I'm guilty of mostly sharing photos of Max smiling. I mean, the kid has a great smile. But happy all the time? Oh, no. And that's a good thing. Because otherwise, he'd be a Disney character, not a real live human kid.


  1. I have had people say "It is good you are so happy" as a compliment. Uh why? I do have a life and experience a full range of emotions-just ask my mom. Ha! Sometimes I think it is out of pity since people think that because I have challenges I cant experience happiness since my life must be bogged down by disability. Not! I am a teenage girl who has all kind of emotions, happiness included but it should not be tied at all to my disability.

  2. I'm a generally happy person, but I am plagued with the opposite stereotype. It says that I am looking out the window of a prison, yearning to get out. Autism is not a prison. Ignorance is.

  3. I think we also become very adept at learning to please and meet the expectations of others very early on out of necessity. We are surrounded by adults and inundated with appointments and therapies that are so goal oriented we learn quickly what is required of us to get to the fun stuff. A sunny personality, as you've said of Max's charm goes a long way. It's an effective, energy reducing tool to have.

  4. I don't have an intellectual disability and people think that I'm always happy and that really annoys me to know that. I am NOT always happy but people say maybe this is because people only see me happy.

  5. Bravo! It is so important, too, for kids with disabilities to know that they don't HAVE to be happy and pleasing all the time. That message sometimes gets imprinted, often unintentionally, and later on its hard for even adults with disabilities to un-learn. Sounds like Max won't have that problem though!

  6. Goodness YES to this! I get so frustrated by the assumption that disability = one emotional level, or that it's somehow made out to be synonymous with happiness/sadness.


Thanks for sharing!

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