A Very Special Perspective

May 16, 2010
By , Arden, NC
How do you react when you come across a person with Special Needs? If you are like the majority of people, you might feel scared, overwhelmed, uncomfortable, or feel sorry for them. As human beings, difference catches us off guard, and makes us feel uneasy. Think about all the kids you see bullied at school. I'd bet they are the misfits; the shy kid in the back of the room, a black student in a school of whites, a homosexual, someone with a disability, or maybe even you, for being creative or unique. Society tells us what is acceptable; for teenagers, it's pop music, parties, name brand clothes, drugs, sex, junk food, TV, etc. As we grow up we are told where to go with our lives, go to a decent college, get in a degree and a job in a respectable field, find your spouse and settle down in the suburbs. The majority of people don't question, and become a servant and advocate of “the norm”. I don't blame them, it is easier to go along with what is “normal” than to search inside yourself and come into your own, while everyone is putting you down for doing so. But what is easier is not necessarily what is best. We owe it to ourselves to make the most out of life, and you can't do that without being true to yourself. We reserve the right to question that initial reaction of anxiety upon meeting someone different, and should use it to cast off any judgmental or unfair bias against those who are happy just being themselves. If you open yourself up to those who are “different”, you will find they are not as abnormal as you originally thought.

My younger brother was diagnosed with High Functioning Autism when he was 12, four years ago. When my mother told me his diagnoses, I was baffled. I always thought of Autism as a very severe disability. When I heard the word “Autism”, I pictured kids who couldn't talk or feed themselves. My brother was always an oddball, but not to that extent. How could Autism go undetected for 12 years? I decided to find out. I read 4 books in two weeks on the disorder, and discovered there was an Autism Spectrum Scale from Low to High functioning, and a wide variety of symptoms in between. It amazed me how much there was to learn, especially compared to what I thought I already knew. Through my research I was able to come to a basic understanding of Autism, which gave me the tools to help my brother through hard times. But that was only one disability, and I began to wonder about all the others. It wasn't until later that the opportunity to learn more about people with Special Needs presented itself.

Halfway through my freshman year of high school, I moved out of state, 800 miles away from home. It took me a long time to get adjusted and I was very depressed when I first moved. I threw myself into my school work as a distraction, there was a lot to catch up on since my credits from my old school didn't transfer. As my depression and anxiety worsened, I did the bare minimum for myself each day, and slept often as a way to escape my emotional pain. I felt lost, alone, and hopeless. During this time, my younger brother had his own struggles. But we cheered each other up, by playing video games and taking walks in the woods. I learned to make up funny stories about things that worried him, because it made him laugh and relaxed his anxieties. When I was upset and locked myself in my room, my brother would tap on the other side of my wall in his closet for hours, just letting me know he was there. In my brother I found someone that understood what I was going through, and with that support I was able to make it through the most depressed time of my life.

Things improved slowly for me after that, I always missed home, but I decided to make the best of high school. The following school year I made new friends, and starting dating my boyfriend. I began seeing a therapist to keep myself in a healthy mental state. Academics were a constant stress, so it wasn't until my senior year of high school that I had some room in my schedule for a few electives. For the first time, I had a lot of choice with what classes I could take, and I didn't know what to choose. My Assistant Principal suggested I take Peer Tutoring, a class where you tutored Mentally and Physically Challenged students. I thought of how my younger brother and I were able to overcome our difficulties together, and signed up.

My first day in the class soon came, and I was overwhelmed. The students had a wide range of personalities, disabilities, capabilities, and specific necessities pertaining to all of that. I couldn't even remember everyone's name, knowing and respecting their individual needs and limits seemed impossible. But the staff and my peers were patient and caring, and I learned quickly. Each day I looked forward to Peer Tutoring and took advantage of the chance to get to know all 8 kids. It wasn't long before I knew everyone's name and had made eight new friends. I helped them academically by explaining activities, encouraging responses, reading stories, and everything in between. I was there for them socially as well, simply by being a friend and another teen they could relate to.

However, my friends gave me everything I gave them right back, and more. I discovered that people with Special Needs are just like us. They have the same feelings, though they may express them through other means. Disabled kids learn in different ways, but they are still academically able. They don't always communicate like us, but they have valuable things to say and contribute. I will always treasure the love and happiness they gave me through pushes on the swing, singing songs together, playing games, holding hands in the hallway, and through smiles that said “I'm always happy to see you.” They taught me that anyone can learn with the right amount of patience and encouragement, and it is often best to teach by example. I acquired the skills to interpret overly excited conversations followed by a sly smile as “I really enjoy your company.” I realized that tendencies of students to get grouchy, yell and cry, or run off are no different than our cursing or breaking down when we feel sad or frustrated. And I'll always prefer "hello" through a laugh, a hug, a high five, a nod of the head, or a sincere look in the eye over the usual, superficial “Hi, how are you?”. It is possible to find common ground or at least tolerance with just about anyone with the right mindset.

The most important lesson I learned from my very special peers is to be comfortable, happy, and proud of who you are, and to see past other's differences. After finally overcoming my depression, anxiety, and my traumatic life experiences, my personality and purpose was stifled. I knew where I wanted to go in life but I didn't know how to get there. In my friends I found a safe environment to express myself, a place where difference was not only encouraged, but appreciated. Mentally Handicapped people don't care what kind of music you listen to, what kind of car you drive or job you have, they don't care what you look like and whether or not you keep up with the latest trends. Society's superficial expectations holds no reverence in what defines a person in the hearts and minds of Mentally Challenged individuals. They see what really matters, which is how much love you have to give, and how much room you have to grow. Let us all appreciate this special population for the gift of genuine uniqueness they give our world everyday.

My hope is that after I have shared my perspective, it will inspire those of you who have not had the pleasure and privilege of having special people in your life to question where you stand and embody an accepting mindset. This is particularly essential if you are a teenager, because I know high school is a hard place to find “real” people, and everyone needs someone real to relate to. If you ever get the opportunity to work with the Mentally or Physically Challenged, take it. I guarantee it will be a heart warming and mind opening experience. And if it doesn't come knocking on your door, reach out. Not only to the Disabled Population but to all of us who need a little encouragement in being true to ourselves, not matter how "different" or "weird" we may be. Stand up for the Gay couple in your school. Don't be afraid to tell the “punk” girl you like her shoes. Smile at the boy with Down Syndrome in the grocery store instead of staring. Buy some sticky notes and write “special kids are beautiful kids” and put them in the Parenting Children with Disabilities books in your local book store. Sit with the guy in a wheelchair at lunch. Tell the overweight girl she looks pretty today. The possibilities are endless, as are the depths of your heart.

Above all, remember that you must first understand yourself in order to understand others. Difference holds no power to create boundaries or intimidate unless you give it that undeserving power. Honor yourself and your peers by remaining faithful and present to your higher being. Don't hesitate to reach deep inside your spirit, and bring out what you find there with vigorous enthusiasm. Evaluate and be patient with your flaws, your hopes and dreams, your personality, etc. Strive to be better, yet accept and appreciate where you are presently. By doing so you are giving birth to your potential and true purpose. If you express who you are in all aspects of life, doors will open in ways you could only dream possible. But don't take it from me, there is a beautiful world out there reaping opportunity, waiting for you. Yes, you, because we are all very special.





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Francine This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. said...
May 30, 2010 at 8:37 pm
No problem, it's always a pleasure to connect with people who understand. Yeah, my brother has been diagnosed with both Asbergers and High Functioning. thanks for the comment, I appreciate it.
 
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