Special needs parents have many pleas: that their little ones overcome their latest obstacles, that insurance covers the most needed treatments, and that someone will give our kids a chance in the future. But of all the pleas special needs parents have, the one that tops the list is the plea to strangers to stop staring at our children.
We understand the difficulty in our request. The wheelchairs. The leg braces. The feeding devices. These are all a bit too much to handle, even for someone who has grown accustomed to their everyday use. But the glances. The “Do you see that?”s. The turn-180-degrees-in-a-seat-and-stare-for-a-full-minute episodes are beyond difficult to manage.
Yes, our children are different than most. They require countless doctor and therapy appointments. They will never be as advanced as everyone else’s “normal” children. And the milestones we celebrate for two-year-olds may seem more appropriate for a child of six months.
But they are not freaks of nature. Rather, they are tiny miracles defying the odds placed against them. They are their own special brand of perfect.
Contrary to what many may think, my child does not wear a leg brace because he fell due to my negligence. Instead, he has hemiparesis — a weakening of one side of his body — from a stroke in utero, and in order to correct his limp, he needs the brace.
And those public temper tantrums? The ones more reminiscent of a horror flick scene than a manifestation of the terrible twos? Those are also a result of his brain injury. You see, he can’t cope with his emotions the way a child with a fully functioning brain can. He experiences frustrations no child his age should experience — frustrations at not being able to communicate his needs, at not being able to make his hands and fingers work the way they should, and at not being able to chew or swallow the way he wishes.
I understand how witnessing a child acting out in public or seeing one who requires ghastly equipment just to perform what are run-of-the-mill tasks for most might be shocking. But even more shocking is the way those stares make us and our children feel.
We can see every sideways glance, every pair of eyes boring into the back of our children’s necks. And the heartbreak it causes us is immeasurable. The instinct to protect our young borders on dangerous levels. And if we could have one thing, it would be that people would stop intentionally and inadvertently making our children feel as if they don’t belong.
So please. All we, the parents of special needs children, ask, is that you stop staring.
Smile? Sure. Mutter a friendly hello? Of course. But stare? No. For the sake of our children and for all that is decent, resist. We know it’s hard, but we also know this: every person who treats our children kindly — who helps them feel welcome in this world — contributes to their sense of dignity.
And for that, we special needs parents give you all the thanks in the world.