Special needs look a million different ways, they are as diverse as every other quality in a kid. In 2012 my husband and I realized that our oldest son, who was 3 at the time, had some developmental differences that were starting to affect all our lives in pretty big ways. Since then, we have been reading and researching about a lot of different topics, starting first with autism, than sensory processing disorder and on into Tourette’s Syndrome, ADHD, OCD, and anxiety disorder, where our son landed. Through this process, the greatest lesson I’ve learned is that there are so many different ways for the brain to be wired, and that’s what these things are, genetic differences, alternative wirings of the brain. Different ways of understanding the world. Please, please note that nowhere in the above sentences did I use the terms “right” or “wrong” because, guess what? There are no right or wrong ways for kids to be wired, just ways.
Atypical kids are not wrong, they are a variant of what we have come to know in society as normal and what we have come to expect of kids. And even that spectrum of what we call typical is wide and vast. Every chart you look at for what scientists and psychologists and other specialists want to see from kids has a wide berth. I absolutely understand that we create a normative set of expectations so that we can make comparisons and see when something is abnormal. We need this so we can spot possible problems and extend extra assistance and support where needed. All of this is important. But, somehow, the ideas of what to expect of kids has grown into a subconscious right and wrong when it comes to how they should appear and what they should be able to do and, what feels especially harsh to me, how they should be able to act in social situations. This can often lead to parents spiraling down a rabbit trail of “will they ever be able to function in society?” when their kids fail to follow specific directions for accomplishing a task or succeeding in a situation. I’ve gone down that trail so many times. The thing I have noticed though, is that my kids both have a unique way to address a problem. Different from each other, sometimes different than most people I know, but that doesn’t make them wrong. Who decided the right way? I mean really, who?
My oldest son takes longer than most kids with almost all fine and gross motor skills. But the thing we’ve learned is that he gets there. We give him time, help him–but give him time. For example, his gait when running didn’t really snap into place until he was 5 years old (you can read about that here — but beware, sometimes my language is adult). This didn’t mean that he wasn’t often running and playing, it just meant that his run was a little off, like he was off center and couldn’t figure out how to move all the parts of his body when running. His weight would be off and one might have said he “had a hitch in gitty-up.” We started going to OT (occupational therapy) when he was 4 years old, focusing on a bunch of different motor skills and also in building his core muscles up. We never really worked directly on running, but it was simply that one day I looked at him and he was running smoothly, in a way that anyone else watching him would never notice. It was like all of a sudden, his body got it. He needed time, but his body caught on.
This has been the case for him in many areas. His physical development is often delayed, but he gets there, and then it’s like it was never a problem. He suddenly gets to a point where he isn’t thinking about moving when he is moving and, instead, he is just moving. If you ask him to do something his face will focus as he tries to figure out what part of his body to move. That’s part of who he is, he will eventually figure it out and we will keep helping him get there. But here is the deal, there isn’t anything wrong with him because of this. He doesn’t need to be fixed, we aren’t rushing to fix him and make him look and move like every other kid. The way he moves is beautiful, the way he engages with the world is beautiful and he will get to the place where he gets his body and understands it better. And we will keep working with him to help him find that place, but never will we ask him to believe that the differences he has, the ways his brain and body are wired, are wrong. (Though honestly, I could do without the nose and ear picking and a few other things that just aren’t appropriate for some of the public realms.)
Special needs are another facet of people, a facet that runs through every community, and is in every classroom (statically). I want to challenge myself and the community I live in to adapt, to learn and to understand. I am so inspired by the people I see jumping into social justice and fighting for equality, but I still feel this community lacks integration. We need to demystify the physical, mental and emotional differences that fill the bodies moving around us and accept and support them. My request is that we all get out our handy googling machine and get some info. We have the power to learn at our fingertips, in our pockets, in front of our faces — more than any other time in the past. Lets look up Oregon’s statistics around special needs, and learn about the definitions of different diagnoses. I had to research what Tourette’s Syndrome really is (I learned it’s not just shouting bad words at random). There is so much to know about Autism, ADHD, Anxiety Disorder and so many more. There are so many physical, cognitive, emotional, and mental differences and they all are varied. Let’s use this power to increase our understanding and our empathy, for the betterment of the community and ourselves.