The Birthday Girl Gives Everyone Else a Gift

birthday cake
birthday cake (Photo credit: freakgirl)

This Saturday my son and daughter went to a birthday party of a very close friend, let’s call her the Birthday Girl, who recently moved to another town. Though the Birthday Girl’s older sister has been acutely aware of my son’s developmental differences for the past few years – I wrote about out a wonderful moment we both had last summer – the Birthday Girl had never seemed particularly conscious of his differences.

Based on my observations of the Birthday Girl and my son together, I assumed that my son would just blend right in with this group of fifteen birthday-horn-tooting, sugar-high seven-year-olds. Boy, was I wrong.

It hadn’t occurred to me that because this party was in another town, many of the kids attending wouldn’t have met my son before. In fact, I wonder if many of them had ever met any child with a cognitive disability as great as his before. It made for an interesting party.

A few minutes after we arrived, the kids were invited to sit at the large dining room table for pizza. At the head of the table, the Birthday Girl had set a place for herself and my son, and insisted that he sit next to her. On either long side of the table, many pairs of eyes stared at him, curious about this boy who moved differently, talked differently, and looked very different, too. They weren’t rude, just quiet and clearly very curious. I tried to facilitate somewhat but was really at a loss as to how to turn this in to a teachable moment.

After pizza the kids went out to the back yard to play for a while, then came back in to have cake. Again the Birthday Girl took my son’s hand and led him to the head of the table.

A few moments before, the kids had been asked not to blow their mind-numbing birthday horns indoors a few minutes before; somehow my son missed that message and proceeded to toot away.

“It’s OK that he’s tooting,” Birthday Girl said. “Because he’s…” and she stopped short, not knowing how to end the sentence.

“Cuckoo,” another child said.

“DON’T COMMENT,” she yelled insistently. “Well, you can comment, if you want to say something like, ‘He’s so nice.’”

And that was that. The party proceeded on. The kids watched a movie, and my son had the darnedest time trying to stay focused. He made noise, climbed on the kids, and eventually, I brought him outside with some toys to play while we grown-ups had a beer.  I felt satisfied that on some level progress had been made. I wondered what it would be like for these kids the next time they met a child like him. Maybe they would consider that child a little less strange, a little less cuckoo.

Recently Kara Baskin wrote a nice piece in the Boston Globe about the simple wish list she has for qualities she hopes to see in her child: graciousness, gratefulness, kindness to strangers and kids who are bullied and old people. Who could disagree?

It struck me that that was probably what all these birthday party guests’ parents wanted for them, too. But it is Birthday Girl who is all those things, and part of why she is is because she has been given a many, many chances to practice being patient, considerate, compassionate, and accepting; many, many chances to see my son laugh, struggle, and love her, too.

If we want our children to be good baseball players, we have to give them a ball and a bat. If we want them to play piano, we have to get access to a piano. If we want our children to be compassionate, we have to give them situations to practice compassion. Not just write lists about it, but do it.

Here is a girl, freshly seven, standing up for someone vulnerable, speaking out to her peers and telling them not to bully. Modeling for her friends how to not just tolerate and accept, but to welcome and appreciate difference. How amazing her life will be. I am excited to watch her grow and am grateful to learn from her.

Happy Birthday, Birthday Girl. You are already wise beyond your years.

No Pity, part 1

I bring along my son, who attends a special education school many miles away, when I pick up my daughter at her neighborhood school’s after-school program.

Since he started attending the far-far-away school a year ago, the ties that bind him to our neighborhood are snapping, one by one. Granted, they were never strong, as he’s always been in a self-contained special ed classroom. But hanging out in the after-school room while his sister wraps up an activity and gets her stuff together is often the only five minutes he gets on any given weekday to hang out with a typically developing child besides his younger sister or her friends, who are not his friends.

Yesterday, he and I were approached by a young boy, probably just his age, who looked at my son, turned to me, and asked, “Can he talk?” Assuring him that he could, I facilitated a little introduction. Stimulated by the bustle of the activity in the room, my son had a hard time making eye contact and speaking in a voice loud and clear enough to be understood by the boy. “Why does he talk like that?” the boy asked. Slowly and gently I replied “Well, because his brain works a little differently than yours or mine.” Piggybacking on my egregious error of talking about my son as if he wasn’t there, the boy replied, “I feel sorry for him.”

“You shouldn’t,” I told him. I corrected myself. “You don’t have to. He’s happy.”

A teacher overheard us, told the boy to go back to what he was doing. My daughter appeared, ready to go home. There was just too much commotion in the room and too much chaos in my head to know the right thing to say, so I let it drop.

Pity is just an indicator of not being aware of someone’s strengths, which in turn is an indicator that there isn’t much opportunity to get to know someone in the first place. Inclusion, inclusion…how long do I have to wait?

Push it good

If you’re interested in media portrayals of disability, here’s a new one to add to the DVR list: Push Girls, a new reality show about four gorgeous, celebrity women who all use wheelchairs. Seems hot and sexy and real, which could be good. Or maybe hot and sexy and exploitative? We won’t know until we see it.

It’s complicated

I am having a really hard time figuring out what to make of my son’s soccer practice this past Saturday. Can you help me figure it out?

As part of our town’s recreation department’s efforts to create recreation opportunities for kids with special needs, they’ve started an adaptive soccer league. High school varsity and JV kids buddy up with kids with special needs to play casually; it’s a low-pressure hour of fun. As part of creating local friendships for my son, who now travels 2o miles each day outside of town to attend school, I registered him for the program in the hopes he’d meet some local kids.

This past Saturday was our second practice. When we arrived, a winter soccer clinic for typically developing school-aged kids was wrapping up; the kids were cute and would have been wonderful buddies for my son, who is nine and has a developmental delay, but they were rushed out of the gym by their coach, who yelled at them to get off the court to make room for our group.

My son’s program started. The participants included my son, a seven-year-old boy from a different town, and about eight adult men who were well over 40, probably from a day program or a group home. I asked the coach who the charming men were and found out they had just come for a one-time visit but were being invited back for the rest of the season. Apparently, as hard as it is to find recreation activities for kids with special needs, it is even hard to find them for adults with special needs.

So. What to think? Am I happy that we are spearheading an inter-generational, regional group that provides opportunities for all kinds of folks with developmental disability? Or does it break my heart that there are no prospective chronological peer friends here?

A little of both, I guess.

Am I proud of our soccer coach for being flexible and seeing an opportunity to let the older men stay on? Am I disappointed that the coach of the typical kids (who is also the manager of the city’s rec department) couldn’t see the benefit of letting the kids from his session stay?

Again, a little of both.

Would a parent of typical children think it’s appropriate for their nine-year-old child play soccer with a group of middle-aged men? Would I have let my daughter stay? Do I have the energy to do something about this?

It’s complicated.

No big whoop?

The special needs blogosphere and social media outlets are abuzz about this recent Target ad featuring a boy with Down Syndrome. This kid is cute. Really cute. It’s great to see him there.

The big news isn’t the fact that he’s in the shot; what people seem to be focusing on is the fact that Target didn’t make a big deal about it.

I wonder, though, how they could have “made a big deal” if they wanted to. Send out press releases? Add a little arrow pointing to him with a label, “Check it out, we’re really cool”? I don’t think so. They didn’t make a big deal about it because simply including him is a big deal. Enough said.

I don’t mean to sound cynical. I am glad to see all kinds of people portrayed in media, there not because they’re a token representing a particular slice of the market, but because they’re just there. And if it gets folks talking about and encouraging true inclusion (like this great post by Shannon Dingle about the ad and creating inclusive religious communities), then I’m definitely satisfied.

We can celebrate this milestone. But let’s not say that we’re done, OK?

Here’s how we’ll know when we’re done: when all children are included, not only in photo shoots but in schools and communities and in real lives all around the world, when no one makes a big deal about it, and no one needs to point out that we didn’t make a big deal about it.