Don’t Make His Special Needs Your Spectacle

Sometimes people do things that they believe to be compassionate. While that may be the intention, these actions aren’t always seen the same way by everyone. In fact, many moments of kindness can rub people the wrong way and, while some might think an action is wonderful, others might not.

All that said, I have one request.

When my non-verbal son with Autism gets to high school, I’d like to ask the most popular student to please not ask him to the school dance as an act of charity and then post the video online for “feels”.

I know, I know. I feel like the Grinch That Stole Homecoming. In reality, I realize that many of these star football players and stunning beauty queens aren’t motivated by ill will. In fact, for many of them, this action feels almost benevolent.

Look at me. I’m treating people who are different as if they are the same.

You’re not. I can say this because I have been to high school and I’ve attended dances. It’s rare to see a student ask another one who they barely know to be their date while a parade of video-recording classmates watch on clapping and crying out, “Awwww.” It’s actually the exact opposite of treating everyone the same. If you substitute special needs out for any other differing race, religion, or demographic, the scene would be appalling.

specI know there are people reading this who might have the opposite opinion. You might want your child, with whatever people might see as a “disability”, to get one of these feel-good invites. You have every right to and, as I mentioned earlier, there are plenty of positive ways to view it. That’s why I see them in my social media feed every year around prom with comments from people who “Love This!”

I, sadly, don’t. My son is only seven, but one day he will be seventeen and, if he continues on the path he’s on now, he’s going to be awesome. Sure, he might not be the type of awesome that strangers first notice or the type that leads the rugby team, but he will be a well-raised and quality individual. If a girl wants to take him to a school dance, he should be a great date.

He shouldn’t, however, be a prop.

That sounds pointed, but it’s true and needs to be said plainly. While many people can justify these videos as selfless acts of kindness, you can’t discount the spectacle of it all. It’s one thing to ask a student with special needs to your dance because you like them. It’s another to make a whole show of it. The entire process seems to go from selfless to self-serving with the click of an iPhone video.

Optics aside, I want to give everyone the benefit of the doubt and say that these spectacles are done with positive intentions in mind, even if the end results sometimes don’t feel that way. I don’t want to imply that the people who make these videos or grand displays are doing it solely for selfish reasons. That’s not fair and, honestly, I don’t think it’s true. I do, however, think that they need to alter their approach to those with, what many might see as, “special needs”.

My big problem is with the assumption that bringing someone like my child into your world is some sort of charitable act on your part. There’s an arrogance to that in my eyes. It implies that he’s somehow less than others in his age group and just waiting to be included, no matter how superficial his inclusion might be. He’s not here for your inspiration. Treating him as a spectacle – either positive or negative – is wrong. There has to be middle ground between cruel mocking and over-the-top applause on Youtube, no?

That’s not to say that there aren’t students with Down Syndrome, Autism, developmental disabilities, or anything else seen as “different” who want to be included in the world of their fellow students. There definitely are. Everyone, on or off the spectrum, is unique and we all have our own desires. I’m not speaking for them. I’m just speaking for me and my family. What is right for us might not be right for another.

runBut if your reason for the invitation is one of true friendship, why not ask them to your school dance free of cameras and doting classmates? If you really wanted to go to be with this person at your school’s event, you don’t need an audience, do you? If you don’t really want to go with them, though, then you have to really look inward and ask where your true motivations lie. It sounds like you might not be the prize that you think you are.

Whether you’re a local politician trying to smile for the camera next to my son at a local event or a prom-posing cheerleader  waiting with a team of videographers, it’s important to remember who you are. Just because you don’t have Autism like Lucas, doesn’t make you better than Lucas. In fact, most people I’ve met aren’t. Not even close.

He’s one of my favorite people in the world and I love spending time with him. As he grows up, his communication skills might improve. They might not. Either way, anyone who is willing to put the effort in to know him will find that he’s one of the greatest people there is. They can invite him to any dance they like, but if he goes, it won’t make them kind or progressive or inclusive.

It will make them lucky.