An Open Letter to all Neighbors, Everywhere
Perhaps you've seen us in passing.. the "special" family on your street. You've seen me struggling with my special needs child, you've seen her run away from me, you've seen her yelling at me or hitting me, and you've thought to yourself, "I don't know how she does it." "I'm so glad I don't have to deal with that." And without a second thought, you walk back into your typical life.
You're a good person and you know you are lucky… you have a beautiful family and healthy children. You've taught your kids to be respectful, to play nice, to "include" us. Perhaps you've even taken it a step further and have gotten to know me as a person and have listened when I talk about my special child.
Here's what you don't know.
When I'm outside with my special needs daughter, your children avoid us. If they spot us coming, they duck behind bushes or run away if they think they have an escape route. Nearly every day, we see all of your children playing together for hours on end; we come to each of your front doors, knock politely (I wait on the sidewalk to encourage her independence) and listen as your children say day after day after day, "No, I can't play right now, I'm busy." I've even resorted to calling ahead of time, programming each of your numbers into my cell phone, only to have the calls go to voicemail and never have them returned.
You don't see my child's face fill with disappointment. You don't see the two previous hours of perseveration where she is asking me over and over again, "Can I go up the street now? Can I play with friends?" You don't see my heart shatter into a million pieces when I see your child stiffen and turn away when we come into eyesight.
I made it a point at the beginning of the summer to talk with each of you about summer plans. I continually invite your children into my home. I engage them in conversation, I play with them. I feed your children healthy snacks and give them something to drink. I arrange play areas in my home… video games, arts and crafts, imagination play… and encourage them to rotate and take turns so that my younger son doesn't feel left out. I listen to your children. They like to talk about all sorts of interesting things. I am interactive with them because my child doesn't know how to play appropriately so I have to teach her. Every minute of every day is a guided interaction. There is no break or down time unless I hire help or rely on family members. Generally speaking, your kids are very patient with my child and understand her quirks. You have taught them well, mostly.
Here's what you don't know.
When they are done playing, they leave abruptly. I don't know why. I am often left with two very unconsolable children and a messy house.
It hurts me (and if I can be brutally honest, it angers me too) that you NEVER reciprocate. You have not once invited either one of my children into your homes for playtime. Only if there is a party or special occasion where all of the neighborhood kids are invited, do we get a knock on our door. I even asked one of you to maybe take my special girl swimming once or twice, she loves the water and is a very, very good swimmer. Yet I see you take the rest of the kids to the pool and never think to include her. Do you have any idea what it feels like to see all the kids running to your house in their swimsuits, carrying their pool bags and pool toys? Do you have any idea what it feels like to hear all the kids playing in one of your backyards as we walk by seeking just one child with whom to play? Do you? Your children spends hours at my home, sometimes the better part of a day. What do you get to do while they are with me?
I understand that she is not easy to play with. There are times when she gets very upset and she is unpredictable. She may have even hit your child ~ out of fear ~ but she has never hurt anyone. I am always watching. I understand that her play skills are limited and that your child might not want to come play with us because they are tired of only playing one thing. I get that and my expectations are not unreasonable. I don't expect that we'll see your kids every single day. It would be nice to have one afternoon every once in while that we could count on. One afternoon. I don't even mind it always being at my house. If you're not comfortable having her at your house, you could ask me to stay or ask to call me if you run into a situation you can't handle.
My daughter has autism, behavioral, emotional, and cognitive challenges. She wants to play. She didn't always want to, she used to be scared of other children. But she does now.
I also have a younger child that is typical. He longs to play too.
My daughter represents all of the special families in your neighborhoods. It doesn't matter if your neighborhood child is nonverbal, in a wheelchair, or has autism or any other different abilities… they are still children. It's such an isolating life as it is; as mothers, we have to fight for inclusion at school, we have to advocate for them with medical professionals, we have to endure judgment when out in public; it would be nice to not have to fight to have a friend.
Reach out and include a special child in your life and your children's lives today. Even if it's for just a few minutes. It could have a lasting impact on someone's heart.