When your child has special needs, understanding comes in waves. Before they are diagnosed, you convince yourself that all kids are advancing at the same rate as yours. Struggles to walk or talk are observed, but usually dismissed as a temporary setback that most babies probably go through.
Once you do get diagnosed and start dealing with your child’s special needs, you get so focused on your own situation that you start to think they’re all the same. Special needs are special needs. They’re consistent across the board.
Of course, you know deep down that’s not true. We all have heard that old saying that if you meet one person with Autism, you’ve met one person with Autism. That’s true. Then again, having a child with Autism, doesn’t necessarily mean you interact with other children on the spectrum much. For the most part, you only truly know one person with Autism. You not only met them, but you’ve studied them, obsessed about them, and eventually come to understand the right and wrong ways to communicate with them.
It’s just the way it is, for me at least. I’m usually so tuned in to what his needs are at all times, that I have a sort of tunnel vision when we’re out together. Not only am I constantly ready in case he tries to run, but I make sure he’s paying attention to his steps and hasn’t lost focus. That’s exactly what I was doing as I walked him to the school bus last week during his final days of Summer classes.
I took Lucas’s hand, greeted the bus matron, and led him onto the steps.
As he walked on, I placed his knapsack up onto the bus and watched as he rounded the corner and took his seat.
Hi! Hi! Hi!
I smiled up at the driver. Before I could give her my usual “see you later”, she addressed what I hadn’t even noticed.
That’s Tommy. He’s saying hi to you.
Oh. Me? That voice in the distance was addressing me? I looked around at the seat next to Lucas and there was a boy, roughly his age, grinning ear to ear at me. While I had heard him shouting “hi”, I treated it the same way I do with some of the sounds that my non-verbal son will make at times. I didn’t realize he was actually saying “hi”. If he was, I definitely didn’t realize he was saying hi to me.
I waved a wide exaggerated wave and he hopped a bit in his seat with excitement. I smiled but apparently still wasn’t fully understanding my end of the conversation. The bus driver, once again, smartened me up with her dead-pan delivery.
And what’s your name, dad?
Oh, yeah. Sorry. Hi, Tommy. I’m James.
Looking into the rear view mirror, the driver narrated my reply in case he didn’t catch it.
Hear that, Tommy? His name is James.
It was a nice moment and as I stood there watching the bus pull away, I could hear Tommy’s voice calling out, “Bye! Bye!” When I returned to the front door, Olivia told me she could hear him from the house. I told her the story and she smiled just as I did.
I know why it made her as happy as it made me. Connecting with Lucas was hard for a long time. So much of what we were doing felt one-sided. Talking and playing was more for us than for him – or so we feared. Yet we kept doing it. While there are still many moments where he will go off into his own world, the times we’ve learned to be together have been earned. She appreciates how hard it is to get through to a child like her brother and understands why it’s special that Tommy was saying hello to me.
It’s one of the main reasons we should stand in awe of special education teachers (and all teachers in general). Finding common ground with one child might be light years away from how to do it with another. You can’t use the same approach to each kid and you can’t compare their development to one another. They’re all unique in ways you never even realize.
When Lucas was much younger, we brought him to his first preschool class for children on the Autism spectrum. Still early on in our experience, we expected every kid would be just like him. Upon walking in, though, we saw that wasn’t the case. There was one little girl in particular who stood out. Her sweet little dress and perfect curly hair looked like it was straight from the Cabbage Patch. Her speech was also well above her age level.
It was a stark contrast to my son, who was sitting silently and playing with an electronic toy. I wondered if he was in the right class and couldn’t imagine how this girl was in the same group. I began questioning every move he was making in comparison to this delightful little Shirley Temple-looking kid.
As this internal debate was going on in my head, the block tower that the girl was building fell down. So she reached down, hoisted up the giant wooden crate of blocks, and threw them clear across the room. As they smashed against the wall, a voice in my head said, “Oh. O.K.”
I’m actually grateful for moments of clarity like that. It allows me to see things the way someone unfamiliar with my son might see them. As parents, we become so accustomed to the way our children behave that we forget others might not be. Meeting other children in his class, on his bus, or anywhere else reminds me that people not immediately understanding Lucas isn’t something to be offended by. It’s not done out of malice or apathy. It’s a process and my job, as his dad, is to help others know him as well as I do.
Lucas’s last day of summer classes was on Monday. Again I was focused on his steps as we marched up the walk to the open doors. As always, I was ready in case he tried to run, made sure he was paying attention to his steps, and hadn’t lost focus. Suddenly, my tunnel vision was ripped away by a voice on the bus.
Hi, James! Hi, James!
I can’t really explain it, but hearing that made me so happy. After years of bridging connections with my son, I had learned to appreciate moments like this. I excitedly peered around the corner.
Hi Tommy! Hi!
He was thrilled to hear me say hello and I felt the same. I hope one day my son says hello and, when he does, I hope someone says hello back. Whether that ever happens or not, I’m glad to return the hello to someone else’s son and appreciate how special it is that he let me.