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How You Should Treat My Child with Special Needs

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Ellen S.: This is my little boy, Max. He's 7.

At first glance, he may look like any other kid. And in many ways, he is like any other kid. He loves chocolate ice cream, trucks, airplanes, his toy tractor, chocolate ice cream, T-ball, splashing around in the pool, the movie "Cars," pulling his little sister's hair. And also, chocolate ice cream.

Max actually has cerebral palsy. It's a scary term, I know. Before I had him, it seemed like a terrible fate to have a kid with disabilities.

Then I had a kid with disabilities.

Max had a stroke at birth. Crazy but true: Babies can have strokes. It was a stroke that damaged both sides of his little baby brain. My husband and I were told that Max may never walk or talk, that he could be mentally retarded, that he might have vision and hearing problems. Every single one of my nightmares became a real possibility.

Except ...

Max walks. He runs, too. He speaks words. He sees fine. He hears perfectly. He's bright. He's funny. He's interested in the world. Yes, he has his challenges: He cannot talk fluidly, and he has trouble using his hands and chewing food. But he's doing really well for himself. And he makes me happy, blissfully happy, every single day. Because he's so sunny, because he's a fighter, because he is an all-around phenomenal kid.

That might not be what you'd think if, say, you were to spot us at the playground.

You might feel sorry for my child. I know, Max may look a little pathetic when he drools or when he's struggling to pick up something and he can't. But, trust me, he is perfectly content with who he is and one very cheerful, life-loving child. Who will someday be quite the ladies' man, I know, but I'm not quite ready to worry about Max and dating. Maybe when he's 8.

You might think that my child should be treated differently than other kids. Nope. Max likes it when you talk to him. He likes it when you joke around with him. He likes it when you fart (although I'm not expecting you to do that).

You might think that your kid and my kid don't have much in common. It's true Max may not be able to do some things other 6-year-olds can do, or do them in quite the same way. But just like your kid, he likes to play, pretend, laugh, get silly, touch dirt, roll in the dirt, get himself entirely covered in dirt, bring home dirt, track dirt all over the house. You get the picture.

You might feel embarrassed if your child says something "inappropriate." You know, like "Mommy, what is wrong with that boy?" or "Mommy, why is that boy drooling?" Don't worry, I won't be offended; kids are curious. Kids don't get it. I understand that. Just as long as your child doesn't ask, "Mommy, do you think that boy's mommy could use a little liposuction?"

You might think it's rude or awkward to pull your child aside and explain that my child has special needs. Actually, I'd appreciate it if you did do that. Sometimes, kids don't know what to make of Max or how to play with him. I can certainly jump in and explain things to your child, but it'll be much more reassuring and encouraging coming from you. Say it however you wish -- "This is a child who can't talk like you do but who likes to play just like you do, you may just need to have a little more patience with him" -- but please, say it.

Your child will learn about kids who have special needs. My child will feel included. Everyone will have fun. What could be bad? Max is just a kid. A kid with special needs but still, just a kid.

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72 comments so far | Post a comment now
Robin January 21, 2010, 3:33 AM

Thanks for this article. Sometimes the child gets forgotten and his disablity is all that’s discussed. Thanks for showing that children are still children underneath it all!

Shannon January 21, 2010, 7:09 AM

Thank you so much for sharing your story & advice. I pray that ya’ll have a blessed life!

Teresa January 21, 2010, 6:09 PM

1. Your son is cute as a bug.
2. Right on. Can we put this on a billboard? The whole article. And inside fortune cookies. And in every book ever published from this day forward so that it reaches anyone that can read. And on every radio station every thirty minutes so that the ones that DON’T read can hear it? And on tv for people that watch?

I think that you just said what the rest of us parents of “special needs” kids would like to say to everyone out there.

I would like to print it and show it to all parents at the daycare my 3 year old attends so that nobody again asks me “what’s wrong with his brain”.

J January 21, 2010, 7:14 PM

Wonderful article!!

Ps- I am a Professional snacker too :)

Karen January 21, 2010, 8:24 PM

Very well written. Thanks for getting the word out. People may also appreciate this. Helped me put things in perspective.

Anonymous January 22, 2010, 7:15 AM

beautiful. thank you for this.

Colleen January 22, 2010, 8:01 AM

Thank you! I am a former special needs child (now adult) and I swear, the parents were always worse than the kids. I never felt sorry for myself, the kids in my class never felt sorry for me, but the parents did and it was hurtful and annoying. I wish every parent could read this.

Rachelle January 22, 2010, 10:32 AM

Loved the article. I also have a special needs kid named Max. In many ways, you could be describing my son. In fact, I think they would be friends because they both have similar interests like torturing their sisters, farts, and splashing in the pool.

You described your son so well, but you forgot to go on and on about just how CUTE he is!

Laura January 24, 2010, 8:42 AM

Thank you for sharing. I am in school for OTA ( Occupational Therapy Assistant) And I have learned about CP, the causes and effects and so on. It is great to have a real look into what it is like to have a child with CP. I have not started fieldwork yet, but when I do I will keep you in mind in how I approach and treat children with CP. Thanks again :)

Cynthia March 12, 2010, 1:20 PM

I too have a son with cerebral palsy. Cole is more involved physically than Max but sounds like the two share the same zest for life. Cole uses a wheelchair, or walks with assistance, various modes for communicating, and is fed through a g-tube. He also has an amazing collection of bandanas which accessorize his every outfit! Yet, despite these holdbacks, he attends school with typically developing children, is wildly popular, smart, bright and funny, and out on the soccer field every chance he gets. He’s surfed, rides horses, and roller skates. Once children meet him, they cease to see the wheelchair, they begin to understand his “talking” and they simply become friends. It’s not always easy to be the parent of a special needs child, and we, perhaps, have concerns and fears that our amazing children do not share. Cole doesn’t believe for one second that he can’t do what everyone else is doing. He simply figures out the best way for him to do it…He doesn’t worry about starting a summer day camp where he doesn’t know any of the children…he simply goes and makes a heap of new friends and enjoys himself.

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