I don’t like to live my life with a bunch of regrets. To me, regrets are unneeded emotional baggage. However, there is one “take back” I wish I had. It happened many years ago, before I was even married. I was on a group date with my (then) future wife and a group of her friends. I hardly knew anybody there, so conversation just wasn’t happening for me until I opened my mouth and said something, to this day, that I wish I hadn’t.
There was a woman who was talking, and she must have been a special education teacher or the parent of a special needs child, but the term she used that I tuned into was “oppositional defiant disorder”. I said something to the effect of that just being some sort of excuse, and she (justifiably) scolded me in a way that I never had before. The only other thing I remember was driving home and thinking, “What was she so upset about?” Well, it took me about seven or eight years, but I eventually figured it out.
It’s no big secret that childhood disabilities keep growing and growing, and my personal involvement began in the Summer of 2007 when my son, Harrison, was diagnosed with autism. I remember wishing to words off his diagnosis paperwork. I remember sitting on my couch, wondering what I was going to do. I remember asking myself the ever-important question, “Why me?” Harrison, through his triumphs and struggles, gave me a very definitive answer. Sure, these children have their struggles, but the way they overcome these struggles could teach us all something about dedication and fortitude. Seeing how these children keep smiling and just keep going can teach us all about finding the goodness in life.
My first real experience in all this with a child other than my son came through a child my son pals around with at school. He’s the same age as my son and has Down’s Syndrome. I helped chaperone a field trip to Camp Courageous, an awesome camping experience for children with disabilities. I was walking through a wooded trail with my son and this other child, and we were all hand-in hand. We were giggling, laughing, and making jokes about anything and everything. We were all, just, happy and inseparable the entire day. It was on the bus ride home that I also learned of an awesome website whose aim is to have everybody eliminate the “r-word” from their vocabulary. I made the pledge, along with a couple hundred thousand others, so awareness is on the rise. But we’re not there yet.
A year or two later, my wife and I were planning both my sons’ birthday party, and Harrison, for the first time, wanted to invite a friend. This just happened to be the same child from Camp Courageous. So my wife wrote the invitation and mailed it out. The child’s mother called my wife a few days later to say that her son was going. She added that he was super-excited because it was the first real birthday party he’d ever been invited to. I was left wondering to myself, “Why doesn’t he get invited more often?” He was one of the happiest children I’d ever seen and spreads this happiness to everybody with whom he’d come into contact. I started seeing a part of my old self through all this, the old, ugly part of me that saw people only for their external appearances and didn’t see these children for how and who they could truly be. That part of me is gone, a distant memory, and I have my truly wonderful son and every other child with a “disability” that I’ve truly gotten to know to thank for inspiring my change.
People have said to me that having a child with autism must have completely turned my life upside down. No, I’d rather say it turned my life right side up and taught me everything I needed to know about how to be a loving, compassionate, and accepting person. And all these children I know did it with a so-called “disability”. Disability? Heck, I’d rather call it a super-ability because I think these children were placed on this earth to show us all a thing or two about love and happiness. And they are the ones who I truly believe are living up to the fullest of their potential and making this world a better place, and the sooner everybody in this world becomes more aware and realizes this, the sooner EVERYBODY will come closer to reaching their true potential.
I had wished I could go back in time and prevent myself from saying those things to that woman, but the more I think about it, maybe it was supposed to happen. Maybe it was a part of the process of my learning and acceptance. I don’t look a specific child anymore as a child with autism, Down’s Syndrome, MS, MDS, ADD/ADHD, or any other type of “disability”. I look at them all as children who, just as any other child, need the love and attention they deserve, and they will return that love and acceptance to all of us in ways we would never have realized had we not paid attention.