Last week, a minor little thing was said on the sidewalk at school pick-up. It was so minor, so quick, but it was one of those sentences, those moments, that you can’t get out of your head. It’s been bothering me the entire holiday weekend, so I feel I have to say something. 
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Charlie’s 1st day in this new school

It was the second week of school. All of us parents are still getting our routines down, standing at the gates of the school at 2:30 waiting for our anxious little ones to pile out of classrooms at the ring of the bell, ready to get home after a long hot day. I think all of our kids are the same at that time of day: a mix of exhaustion, excitement, silliness, eagerness to get out of a seat and play, a little hunger on top of it all. None of our kids are any different at 2:30. 

In only the second week, us parents are getting to know each other as well; we see a few familiar faces at those gates, a face or two from last year, a face from summer activities, a few we recognize may belong to our own classroom. My son’s class is Special Ed, so we only have nine students, nine sets of parents. It makes it pretty easy to make connections. In addition, we all share a big commonality: our boys have autism, so we can easily bond over shared struggles and experience. A particular mom and I have really bonded over the years; in the few minutes at school pick-up in the years since kindergarten, we have shared quick quips of struggling to get services for our boys, who we like of therapists, what agencies we’ve chosen (we’ve shared so much of that, we actually share a therapist), a few quickly-shed tears over a hurtful incident for our boys, an unpleasant comment made in the cafeteria, or an equally unpleasant comment made by an unexpected family member. These are the kinds of things Special Ed parents can chat about in the few minutes at the gate at school pick-up. I’ve learned with this particular amazing mom, that she lets things roll off her back more easily than I do. Perhaps it’s because she has had to. Maybe I should also have developed this practical ability, but I haven’t. I clearly let things stew over a long weekend, and then, wishing I had the quick-wit and verbal agility typically reserved for a sit-com or movie heroine, I dream of being able to simultaneously knock the offender down a few pegs while eloquently educating them on their apparent lack of understanding and obvious stupidity.

On this one day last week, my mom-friend was talking to another pair of moms at pick-up. I didn’t disturb them as I walked up, they seemed to be enjoying their new introductions. The gates opened, we filed in as classroom doors swung open, and children poured out. As quickly as kids came running, I felt a tug on my shoulder, “Kristina, you’re not going to believe what that mom just said!” 

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Trying to avoid homework with silliness.

“What?!” I asked.

“These two moms were introducing themselves and asking each other if they were new to this school. One said it was their first year here, the other said, ‘Oh, we’ve been here a few years. We love it. It’s such a great school! You’re really going to do well here.’ And then she got this sort of whisper and said, ‘But there’s a lot of Special Ed here, don’t let that discourage you!’ And I told them, ‘Well, actually, my son is one of those Special Ed kids!’” She giggled as she recounted the incident. 

“Oh my God,” I think I shrieked. 

“Oh, Kristina! You have to just laugh at that! Nothing shuts someone up like a foot in her mouth!” She chuckled. 

And at that, our sweet little boys ran up to us with their non-verbal expressions of “Hey Mom, I’m so glad you’re here!!”

So all weekend, I thought about this. I had dreams of going up to this pair of women at the school gate. What could I say that would get my message across? What could I say that would translate the severity of such a seemingly innocent remark? Would I have been able to say something? I admit to also having visions of just going up to her and slapping her.

When you have a child with a disability, these comments are not foreign. Comments, stares, ignorant insults. They are ignorant, but they break your heart. When you have a child with autism, the unknown nature of the disorder only adds to the comments, remarks, and questions. Unfortunately our own community hasn’t helped us any. Between radical movements to end vaccinations or start blood chelation treatments, or the cards handed out to explain a tantrum in public, or insanely difficult diets where we force our kid to gnaw on a cucumber at a birthday party while others revel in cake, all in an attempt to thwart meltdowns or inspire speech, we have lost the point that our children are still just children.  

My child is in Special Ed, and we are so lucky! We are lucky to live in a society, despite the trouble various school systems may have, that recognizes need in specific children, and attempts to accommodate their needs. Our children are in Special Ed, not because they are less, or bad, but because they learn differently. “Different, not Less!” Our kids are capable, but it is recognized that they learn in a different setting, or with a different teaching approach. And because of the amazing patience and dedication of the few individuals who teach and work in Special Ed, most of these kids end up learning just as much, and contributing just as much to society, as their typical peers, sometimes more! This is not 1950 anymore! We don’t need to pigeon-hole ourselves with stereo types! Maybe as recently as when I was in elementary school, Special Ed might have been where kids were sent when they didn’t know what to do with them. Or perhaps they were in Special Ed for disciplinary issues. But realize, all of the kids in Special Ed have their needs diagnosed and addressed. It’s not behavioral issues, it’s learning, developmental, speech, vision, hearing, physical limitation, fine motor… They’re different than the typical child, not less, not scary, not bad! They don’t bring down the school, they lift it up!

Because a typical child may go to school with a child with autism or in a wheelchair, he or she will then get to know our child, and learn about autism or physical disability. The wonderful thing about this is a little bi-product: tolerance! Years ago, the cutest girl came running up to my son at the mall, “This is my friend, Charlie. He has autism, he can’t talk, but he’s my friend,” she explained to her father. It melted my heart. She probably knew more about autism than her father. One day, when she grows up, she will encounter other adults with autism, and will be kind and caring. Knowledge leads to acceptance and understanding. 

© KRISTINA BANT JENKINS_2014_special-2Bneeds-2BparentsWhen a child overhears talk, or even subconsciously hears slight remarks a parent makes about a child with disability, they grasp the underlying meaning, intolerance. When a child sees a parent stare at the child who is different, they understand that the difference might be threatening. Ignorance gives way to intolerance. Stupid comments give way to hate. It’s like the old saying: thoughts lead to words, words lead to actions… and so on. Please be aware of what you say in front of your children.  The “Why is that boy so weird?” comment came from somewhere.

I’ve stated it before, I couldn’t be more blessed. (I know that’s an over-used word on social media, so please let me explain). When I had my child, I was just like any other suburban mom, I wanted the good job that had flexibility, a good husband, a dog, a cat, a nice house on a tree-lined safe neighborhood street, easily accessible to the city, a nice group of perfectly coupled friends, the particular car in the driveway, and… the perfect child or two (after the correct amount of years), attending the perfect school with the perfect… you get the picture!  And then there was autism! 

Since then, our lives have changed, I’ve changed, drastically, only for the better. Without going too much into this, as it is not my point right now, my autistic son has taught me way more than I ever could have dreamed of teaching him! He has made me a better mom, a more caring person, a better individual. Because I was catapulted into this world of Special Ed and Special Needs, I feel I was given the privilege of getting to know incredibly strong, unbelievably determined, hardworking, intensely loving, parents and helpers of these kids. I have never met a better, tougher, smarter, more resilient people in all my life! I feel privileged to know them, blessed to be put in a position to be their friend, and honored to be one of them. 

My son, Charlie, loves the beach, loves cartoons, he loves his grandparents and his dog. He’s dying to make friends on the playground and join the basketball game. This is Autism. This is Special Ed. At 2:30, please don’t stare at our kids, introduce yourselves. At 2:30, you’ll see all of our children are no different. Get to know our kids, the ones in that Special Ed classroom down the way, and you’ll understand why we all feel this way! You might even make a friend!

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