I actually wrote this in September of 2009... still applies. The older Ryan gets the more different he becomes, for now anyway. The differences begin to sting a little more often these days. Just remember... for everyone, not just special needs kids... that difference is a call to understanding and growth, not a call to separate and hide.
This morning was Ryan's second day of school. His first day went great. He loves his teacher and he made it through the day with no fits and only one fussy time, and that was when he had to wake up from naptime- and I can't blame him there. As I stood outside the door of the music room waiting to see his teacher so I could let him go, I couldn't help noticing how many kids were still crying for mommy the second day. There were still parents trying to peel their kids off their bodies and send them off with the reassurance that mommy and daddy love them, while the kids clung for dear life. Wasn't long before Ryan joined them. His protest of choice is to yank my arm in the direction opposite the offending area, adding screams for effect. I quickly squatted down, held him close (as close as you can when you're pregnant and holding a 14 month old who outweighs a lot of 2 year olds) and tried to reassure him. Usually we stick out like a sore thumb when he starts this, and I have to admit it was nice to blend in with the scenery for once. For a minute, anyway.
Still not seeing his teacher, I notice Ryan seems to be more comfortable away from the crowd of weepiness. So we go over to this little two foot tall brick wall that separates that part of the hall from the cafeteria, which is empty. It's not long before Ryan almost runs into this nice woman who is sitting on the wall, and as we soon learned, was waiting for her grandchild to get settled before she left. Being a grandmother, she immediately starts trying to visit with Ryan. She starts in with the usual when you're talking to little kids. "Oh, you don't want to go to school" and "you'll love it if you try" and things like that. He's doing his usual, no eye contact or responses from him. "He loves school," I reply on his behalf, "but this morning is a little out of his comfort zone." She asks who is his teacher, I tell her. She tells me whose class her grandchild's in, and right then I see Ryan's teacher coming with one of his classmates in tow. Immediately upon seeing his teacher and the classmate, the grandmother says, "Oh, THAT one." I try to degreet, but no reply. She's obviously through talking to me and no longer tried to talk to Ryan. I've just experienced my first... well, I don't want to say discrimination, but that's the only word that comes to mind.
For those who don't know, Ryan was diagnosed last November with Autism. It's a very diverse disorder that affects more children than you'd think. Ryan is in his second year of PPCD (Preschool Program for Children with Disabilities) in public school. His teacher was toting one of his classmates who has more obvious disabilities. It was immediately obvious to the lady we were visiting with, and out of either fear of what to say or how to deal with what Ryan's problem might be, I felt like she was just done. It wasn't an encounter that will change my life or Ryan's, and neither of us will be in therapy because of it. But it did make me a little more aware that He's different.
Oh, I know Ryan's different. Believe me, I live with him! To see him, he looks like a completely developmentally normal four year old boy. To an extent, he is! He loves Thomas the Tank Engine, Elmo, playing with cars and trucks, and firetrucks, police cars and anything else with a siren just fascinates. But Ryan's brain is made a little differently. It's like buying a computer. It has on it either what you pay for or what you put on it. Just imagine if you were made without the program that helped you know not to laugh at those around you who were crying, or how to process "it's time to be quiet now" in church and concert-type settings. Imagine what it would be like! What would it be like to not know how to hug, or have to be taught. To not know how to call for mommy or daddy when you wake up scared. To not understand how to communicate "I'm hot/cold" or "my head hurts" or "I'm hungry/thirsty". Add to that Glaucoma, and bright lights hurt your eyes. Now stick yourself in a setting where you don't know what to expect and surround yourself with people who expect you to automatically know all these things and be able to respond properly in an instant. Instead of "does not compute" we get screams. Or he bangs his head or elbows. Or both.
Now, I didn't start typing this just to complain about how hard Ryan's life must be. And please don't assume that every Autistic child has the same challenges as Ryan. Autism is a spectrum disorder, and there are a myriad of different things that can be challenges to these people. No, they don't all count an entire box of dropped toothpicks at once, nor do they all rock all the time and insist their underwear come from Kmart (for those of you who've seen Rain Man)! But they do all have feelings.
All disabled (or differently-abled, or developmentally behind) people have feelings. They do! They can hear you and see you and notice when they're treated meanly. They know they're different and so do their parents. Trust me, it's hard enough to accept the fact that there might be something wrong. If you've known me or my husband for five minutes you know how very important music and especially band is to us. One of my personal fears is that Ryan, who idolizes the high school drumline (to the point he just HAS to have his mallets with him much of the time), will be too freaked out by the crowd to handle being in band! All parents of children developmentally on target or otherwise have fears and dreams alike for their children. It's just that some of us see problems that are so immediately concerning that you can't help but project themto the future... and though we're told that Ryan could, with proper therapy, pretty much be normal in a few years it's still scary. It's still hard to pick up your child and instead of hearing all about what they did in Sunday school or school you're lucky to get "happy to see you". It's hard to not really be able to visit churches when you're out of town because you just don't want to put him through the ordeal.
I guess I'm asking... or pleading... with all of you out there to remember that these children (and adults) are made in God's image just as we are. They aren't mistakes or to be shoved in the corner and forgotten. They are fearfully and wonderfully made! They and their parents/caregivers need smiles just like you do. So don't be afraid to talk to them! Even though our Ryan won't likely give you eye contact until you've been "programmed" into his world, he needs that interaction. We and so many other parents live to help our children understand the world- how to play along with all the unspoken rules that go along with all relationships, no matter how brief. I know also, for all the teachers reading this, that not all parents are easy to draw in and get involved, and not all parents are willing to help work with you, so I'm not trying to make you feel bad. To all of you who work with/for children with developmental delays, Thank you! People like you are the reason Ryan is learning to hug us good night and tell us what he needs. You're the reason we hear less screams and more words... period!
So next time you hear a child pitching in a fit in a restaurant or at the store, remember the computer that sits in your lap or on your desk, and that he may not be equipped to deal with what he's being put through. And remember that the same God who sent Jesus to save us from our messups and stupid mistakes created this person and loves them just as He loves you... and He does love you just as we love our kids. No matter what.