My son does not have special needs.
It appears that my special need was to tell people that.
As a former educator who has worked with hundreds of students with a wide range of learning styles, strengths, areas of weakness, and special needs, I’m still embarrassed about this. Apparently, my mind as parent is different from my mind as teacher. I used to think that they were the same.
My husband and I decided last year to enroll our son, Sully, now nearly five, in a fully integrated preschool program at an amazing local school for students with special needs. My Aunt Michelle, a feisty little woman with Down syndrome, has always been a very special part of my life, and my sisters, cousins, and I were raised to love and appreciate her as we would any other family member. We grew up with tolerance, acceptance, and a fierce desire to protect her. I want my children to grow up with those same values.
This school, while focused only on students of school age with special learning needs, recognizes the importance of social interaction, especially among preschool-aged children. The integrated preschool program helps facilitate this interaction for children with special needs and, as an added bonus, helps foster a sense of tolerance, acceptance, and love among children with typical needs. Each student receives a specialized learning plan that caters to strengths and helps develop upon areas of growth. I can’t imagine a better way for my son to learn and grow. He’s learning academic lessons and he’s learning human lessons. He’s learning to accept each person he meets as they are and with great love.
So why did I feel the need to clarify?
Two Christmases ago, Sully refused to kiss Aunt Michelle goodnight. I panicked, afraid that he didn’t want to embrace her because she was different. Was he afraid of her? Was he uncomfortable around her? Was he already developing a bias? As I tucked him in, I asked, bracing myself for a tough conversation about acceptance. He looked at me seriously and said, “Mom, she’s the only one that didn’t have a Christmas present for me.” I sighed, relieved, and tackled a completely different conversation, this one about gifts, gratitude, and expectations.
As a teacher, I’ve witnessed many parents afraid or reluctant to have their child tested for fear that their child would be labeled, separated from their peers, and held back as a result of lower expectations. As a teacher, this frustrated me. I wanted to see each child get the help and support that he or she needed. Equipped with a diagnosis and a plan, I could understand and teach that child more effectively. I wouldn’t see the child differently or care for them any less; I would simply teach them differently. A label could be the answer we’d been looking for. Why all the fuss?
And then, as parent, I had to make clear to others that my own child was label-free. I didn’t want people to think he had special needs. I was a hypocrite. Where was this open-minded and accepting teacher when she-as-mother needed to clarify her own child’s ability to learn?
Parents want the best for their children. We want to give them everything they need. But we also want them accepted in a world that isn’t fully integrated. And, unfortunately, this world often places limits on those with labels.
My mind as teacher thought only of that student in my own classroom, where I knew I would hold them accountable, set high expectations, and push them to succeed. I’d use that label to foster forward movement. My mind as parent was keenly aware that the wider world is not my classroom. I knew that many consider a label a weakness rather than an answer, a stop sign rather than a road map. I didn’t want my own child saddled with a stop sign, even if only in the minds of my peers.
Acceptance starts with understanding. Changing the way we view and respond to those with special learning needs can help shift the way our children view the world around them. Understanding that differences aren’t the same as deficiencies can allow children to accept others more openly and accept their own challenges as they come. If we start with our children, we might eventually change the limitations of a label.
Now, when people ask where I send Sully to preschool, I tell them and leave it at that. If they want to know more, I’m happy to explain. But I’m trying hard to stick to the learning plan for my own special need, thinking with my teacher mind and my parent mind together, raising children that I hope will someday see road maps where stop signs used to be.
Here's to writing, reading, smiling, and road maps of all kinds.