This I Believe

Mark - Omaha, Nebraska
Entered on August 10, 2006

All Our Children?

I believe that every special needs child, including those with autism like our son Jacob, can meaningfully contribute to their family, school and community. Sadly, not all share this view, and demonstrate their indifference and enmity in many, often subtle, ways.

In one instance we felt the sting of bias from a child care center that rejected Jacob for admission without even meeting him. In another they wanted to isolate him from the rest of the “normal” kids. Their definition of success for our son was that as long as he wasn’t bothering anyone– would sit quietly in the corner and not tax the teacher– that he was having a “good day”. Their implied intent was to render Jacob an obedient pet rather than a vital, functioning human being.

Thankfully, not all who assist children with disabilities hold this limiting attitude. There are many who passionately believe that disability does not mean inability, and act accordingly. Embracing this as the operating principle from which they approach these children makes all the difference.

Moving our son to a different school, one more welcoming and inclusive, highlights this. One day Jacob’s class went to visit a nursing home. The students were each paired with a resident, and our son befriended “Joe”. When it came time to leave the teacher asked the children to say goodbye– none of students spoke. The first to move was Jacob, the child who for years could barely speak. The trail-blazer of the class turned out to be Jacob, who walked up, threw open his arms to his new friend and said: “I love you Joe!” And then all the other students, instead of just saying goodbye, all of them approached the residents and gave hugs and “I love you’s”. It’s been said that leadership can be defined as “the presence of willing followers”, and on that day Jacob showed that in spite of his disability— which challenges him greatly– he has unique gifts to share, including leading his peers.

I’ve learned much from our son. I’ve learned to recognize and savor seemingly minor successes, and joyously celebrate moments such as last week when a beloved tutor helped him master the puzzle that is tying one’s shoelaces! I’ve also learned that for Jacob to be comfortable with me that I have to be more at ease in my own skin– with my own prejudices– and calm my fear of those who aren’t exactly like me. How can a child like Jacob be your teacher?

Autism may disable our son, but it certainly does not define him, nor limit in any way his capacity in the most vital of human needs to which we all hunger—the need to love and be loved.

This I believe.