Ted Allen, the host of Food Network's Chopped, recently visited Max's school to speak at a luncheon. Max's vocal group did a presentation. I wasn't there, but Max's teacher and a fellow parent both emailed to let me know that in his speech, Ted mentioned that Max had shown everyone there what it is to be "pure joy."
I thought that was cool. But I also had my usual knee-jerk reaction to comments about Max's happiness: This boy has so much more than joy.
It is such a stereotype that kids with special needs are full of happiness, as if it is their one and only asset. Max does happen to have a really cheerful disposition but, as I've said before, his happiness has nothing to do with his special needs. When people who don't know Max categorize him by this trait, it makes me ache for them to notice his other qualities.
Perhaps this reaction is hard to understand, especially if you don't have a kid with special needs. It's just that it's all too instinctive for people to define our children this way. It's kind of similar to how some people might describe an overweight person: "She has a good personality!" As if her body isn't worth commenting on. As if my kid isn't otherwise worth commenting on, besides the smile on his face. Being the parent of a kid with special needs means regularly having to prove his worth to the world.
But then: Max's teacher sent home a thumb drive with the performance. And, oh my heart, Max was ebullient. He had a Texas-size smile on his face as he sang. He bounced up and down. He just beamed bliss. And when it was done, he took a bow, then another one and then yet another one, looking even more ecstatic.
And there was no denying it: Max's joy is his most prominent trait.
Ted Allen did have some great impressions of kids at the school. He praised their singing. He commended students for coming up with creative ideas for Chopped baskets (each holds four ingredients that participants on the show use to make their dish).
With Max, though, he noticed his joy. As much as I yearn for people to perceive that Max is made up of so much more, that bliss will serve him well in life. And for that, I am grateful.