Parents May Have More to Learn About Special Needs Than Kids

How can I expect my children to grow up free from prejudice if I'm still harboring my own?
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When I was a kid, there were no "special needs" kids. There were "handicapped" kids and "retarded" kids, and they were separated from the rest of us in every way possible. They went to different classes in a different part of the school. I felt sorry for them, and when other kids made fun of them on the bus, it broke my heart.

But I didn't do anything. I was too afraid.

We lived next door to one such boy, John, whose particular challenge ensured that no matter his age, he would always have the outlook of a child. He would come to the barbed-wire fence that separated our country properties while his mother conversed with mine, eye me shyly and say, "hi." Then he would walk away, in his own inimitable lumbering style, smiling the whole time.

When my family moved into the village, John's family coincidentally moved as well, right down the block from us. I would often see him walking down the street, always say "hello" and be greeted with his shy, smiling "hi" in return. The neighborhood kids would tease him from time to time, and sometimes I would have the wherewithal to tell them to stop. Sometimes, I'm afraid, I didn't.

Then I grew up and watched my friends have kids and always asked, "Is everyone healthy?" without ever really expecting an answer other than "yes." One day, however, a good friend had her third child and I cried, "Oh, how wonderful! How is everyone?"

She replied, "She's perfect! She has Down's Syndrome, but she's beautiful and healthy." And I was speechless. How does one react to that kind of news? What could be said that would both celebrate and comfort without minimizing her experience? Rescuing me from myself, my friend finally said, smiling, "God must think I'm one heck of a mother, huh?"

Her daughter went to an inclusive preschool in the city, and when it came time to choose a preschool for my oldest child, I immediately thought of it; he was a sweet, caring, empathic child, and I wanted to do everything in my power to cultivate those traits. I thought that an inclusive classroom would do just that. And if we had any doubts, they evaporated the day of our tour.

We were standing in an empty classroom awaiting our guide, when a young man entered and sat down. He was talking to himself and seemed oblivious to our presence. My husband and I looked at each other nervously and decided the best course of action was to quietly leave the room and inquire as tactfully as possible as to his identity.

Our guide explained that the young man was the autistic son of a staff member and worked at the school. Breathing a sigh of relief, we finished the tour and headed for our car, where we had our defining moment. We knew that our son had to attend this school because of the very reaction we had just experienced.

We were afraid, on some level, of this young man. For all of the education and life experiences we've accumulated, we -- I -- still fear the unknown, and in my life, kids with special needs are unknown. How can I expect my children to grow up free from prejudice if I'm still harboring my own? Consciously or not, these issues are passed on, unless something is done to break the cycle.

I want my children to realize that all kids are different. I want them to appreciate the value of sharing, of learning, and of working together with people whose lives may not be exactly like theirs. When I think of John, especially, I want my children to understand that kids with special needs sometimes need our help, they sometimes need our patience, and they sometimes need our friendship.

But they never, ever need our fear.