Friday, September 28, 2007

Exceptional Interaction

UPDATED: Page down to the bottom!

"Bennie I can't think of how to phrase this question where it doesn't seem rude--- and I think that is part of the problem with many parents-- they are trying so hard not to offend & to be PC, they just end up saying... nothing.

My question for you--- I have two young children, and I hope they wouldn't behave like the ones did you encountered. I KNOW I wouldn't react like that mother or grandmother did. But as you know, kids are curious about anyone that might look or seem different than themselves.

1. What SHOULD the mother/grandmother have said?

2. Would you welcome interaction with other kids with Ben? Or would that be intrusive?

3. How should we as parents teach our kids to interact with kids that may be less verbal?

ughhhhhhhhhhh. see here I go, I feel like everything I said is offensive. Please know that is not how I intended it to sound--- I genuinely don't KNOW. What is welcomed? What is offensive?

Ben & other kids like him deserve to be able to interact, and I need to teach my kids HOW to interact."

This was an excellent series of questions posed by my dear blogging friend Crouching Mommy, Hidden Laundry
. Trust me, cmhl, there was nothing rude or out of bounds about your inquiry. In fact I am very pleased and appreciative that you were honest enough to post these questions. In fact I'm going to encourage some of my fellow exceptional parents to blog here with their own responses. Hey Gretchen, Kelly, Karen, and Kyla - you gals are on the clock! Use your own blogs to respond and I'll link there or send me an e-mail which I'll post unedited here.

The key to the answer of each of the questions is that most of the parents of exceptional children could have easily been in the situation to pose the same questions at some point in the past. We weren't always special needs parents! To be honest eight years ago I wouldn't have known the answers myself. Joan and I discussed this issue a great deal Wednesday night and we both agreed on how to react to every scenario we threw at each other. That is rare!

Let's start with one of the first things that struck me in cmhl's comment: political correctness. To be honest Ben is a disabled child. There is no doubt about that. He will never walk, talk, or even interact with the world like a normal child would. The term "special needs" or "special child" was clearly the terminology used until recently. From my own observations what I'm about to say is important. There are many children that will never have the cognitive understanding of their peers. Even though it is a fairly safe labeling there are a significant number of children who truly understand their "difference" with their peers. Fortunately we know that Ben is one of them but there are many cases where that fact can remain unknown until a child is much older. We therefore use the term "exceptional" for an obvious reason. Ben maybe different but he wants to function like any other of his peers. He is an exception to the rule. Therefore we've used that term to describe him from a very early age.

Next was the question of what a guardian should do in the case of a confrontation. Most often Ben gets "the stare." Generally speaking when a child does this it doesn't bother us like it does when an adult looks at our son like something grotesque. An adult should know better in this day and age but there is absolutely nothing we can do about that. What we do appreciate are the kind smiles Ben gets when we're out in public. Fortunately that is the typical greeting Ben gets from older folks.

In regards to the children, it is in their nature to be afraid of something out of the norm. Seeing another child in a wheelchair hauling a bunch of equipment behind it can be a pretty frightening sight! In a young child's eyes this is an extremely abstract picture and we parents of exceptional children honestly understand that. We actually had a situation occur last weekend that happens every now and then. Given the museum's theme a mother came to the table to meet us and talk about our art. She desperately tried in vain to get her daughter (I'm guessing her age was 5) to get close to Ben and hold his hand (we honestly encourage that when we are out and about) just to show her there was nothing to fear. The little girl ended up crying and very upset.

Although I respect that mom for what she was trying to do she might have postponed an opportunity in the near future for the little girl to accept some other child with disabilities. There's a good chance the mother did more harm than good. If a child is that fearful of the situation it is best to wait until another convenient time. Generally speaking most kids will have to face up to that fear once they are in elementary school. Otherwise have a little chat with your little one(s) when you get home. There are some great story and picture books available at the library that can acclimate children to that experience better that forcing the issue.

In regards to the grandmother (or the mother) of the boy that confronted us she should have immediately come forward to tell him that there was nothing wrong with Ben. She should have added something like, "that little boy has a lot of challenges in life that you don't - he must be very brave. Why don't you ask his father if you can meet him?" Better yet I should've said the same thing and this is very important for the other special needs parents reading here. To protect your child and ease an uncomfortable situation you better be prepared to take the initiative! You can more easily explain that a wheelchair, a suction machine, a ventilator, or whatever are just tools to help our sons and daughters grow healthier just like a pair of glasses helps poor eyesight.

Finally I would always encourage your "normal" children to try and interact with special needs children! Always ask permission from their parent or guardian first before shaking hands, hugs, or however the meeting plays out. You'd be surprised at how well some of us can get around these days with a medically fragile child! I have had countless encounters over the past eight years when Ben has not been with me. In every case I have asked permission to greet the child, asked for their name, and talked to them a bit before I ever mention that I'm also a special needs parent. It has never failed in establishing a great conversation. We exceptional parents want to talk about our kids just as much as any other parent! The end result is that I feel incredibly rewarded by the experience and I'm going to bet the same goes for the other parent.

Here is Kelly's excellent response!

Here is Gretchen's response!

The photo was taken earlier this morning as we arrived for the Special Olympics at Bob Jones University. From our experience last year Ben knew he was in for a treat! More about that experience later this weekend.


Kyla said...

Well said!

Eye contact and a smile is wonderful. KayTar isn't visibly different anymore...I mean, not in a way that is self-explanatory. She is wobbly and stumbles and has physical limitations that are odd for her are, she drinks a bottle/eats baby food, she signs, her hair tends to cover her HA. If someone really watched us, then they could tell, I suppose. But when she had her walker it was noticeable and I always appreciated a big smile or a kind nod. Acknowledgment is always preferred to looking the other way.

Anonymous said...

Kyla, would you consider blogging about this? Given the situation you faced earlier this year I think it would be beneficial to so many parents that meet our kids out in public.

I'll even give you "guest blogger privileges". I really do think this is an important issue. If we can bridge the gap just a little we've at least made progress.

Anonymous said...

I couldn't have said it any better myself Bennie. Well done. Thank you for addressing this. I heart you.

I get all misty eyed when I see pics of Ben. I think I need some wine...

Kelly said...

I posted a response today. I think a lot of what we say is the same! :)

Conni Tögel said...

Greta Post and a Great topic to have out in the open - i've always struggled with finding a good way to aknowledge handicapped kids without seeming condescending or just plain ole nosy. Or, as you say, trying to look the other way - thanks for giving a some great suggestions on where to start.

i LOVE that picture of Ben - he's ready to rumble!

Kyla said...

Definitely, I'll post on it this week and then let ya know.

cmhl said...

thank you Bennie--- what a great post. I really appreciate you addressing this!!