3 Life-Lessons I’ve Learned From My Child With Special Needs.

*Editor’s note- this post originally appeared in Mike’s column on Disney’s Babble.com. To read more of Mike’s posts on Babble click here.

I never thought my child’s special need would teach me how to be a better human being. But here I am, 7 years later, learning so much from his beautiful spirit and unique perspective on the world around him.

girl plays superhero

I hear the front door of our house open and shut swiftly on a warm summer afternoon in Central Indiana, where we’ve made our home for the past 15 years. It’s a few days before school start and all of my kids are a bit stir crazy. The unbearable August heat drives us inside most days by the time the clock strikes 12.

After a minute I don’t hear the door open back up so I head to the front porch to see who escaped. I gently open the front door and peer out. There, by our front flower beds is my son, Jacob. He’s smelling each of the newly blossomed hibiscus. He sniffs, then picks, then sniffs, then picks. In between each sniff and pick of a bud, he stops, grins from ear to ear, and says loudly, “Ooooooo, that smells so goooood!”

Some may call his behavior….odd. A little off, or even weird. Truthfully, he’s been called all of that, and more. My heart fills with joy as I watch each step he takes. In the 7 years since we adopted him, he brings us exuberant joy and happiness.

At an early age he was diagnosed with Alcohol-Related-Neurodevelopmental-Disorder (ARND for short). In layman’s terms, his birth mother consumed alcohol and drugs when he was in her womb and it left his brain permanently damaged. ARND affects children in many different ways. Some are aggressive, or delayed when it comes to academics. Some take on the characteristics of other disorders. My son’s mannerisms and personality closely resemble autism. In fact, he displays all the signs of being autistic.

He suddenly catches sight of me out of the corner of his eye and jumps back. He thought he was alone. “Umm, dad, what are you doing there on that front porch?” he asks articulately. “I’m just watching you buddy,” I reply with a smile. “Are you mad at me for picking the flowers?” he asks. “Cuz I was picking them for mommy.” Gosh I love his giving heart, I think to myself. “No, I’m not mad, but remember our rule about picking flowers?” He looks around for a minute before answering me. “Oh yeeeah, don’t pick the flowers unless you ask first!” he replies joyfully.

He bounds off excitedly toward the fort in the back yard that he and his brothers have worked tirelessly to build all summer. He suddenly stops, turns back and shouts at the top of his lungs, “DAD, YOU NEED TO SEE THIS AWESOME FORT WE’RE BUILDING…COME ON!”

At times, I think that kid sees the world around him in technicolor while the rest of us see it in black and white, or solids.

As I walk back from having a look at the amazing creation they’ve set up in our back yard my heart suddenly fills up and I’m overwhelmed. “If only I saw the world the way he does,” I whisper as I walk through our back door. And with that, I sit down at my desk, open my laptop and begin to jot down some of those valuable lessons, viewpoints, and perspectives I’ve learned from my son…..

We need way more compassion.

He’s taught me so much about compassion. Specifically, that we need much much more of it in this world. The cold winds of mistreatment blow us around like a January wind. However, my 7 year old son has figured out that giving compassion freely changes the world. He never sees others as being different from him and he’s always first to make sure you’re okay if you’re sad or bummed out about something.

When Kristin takes care of our good friend’s son Charlie, who has Cerebral Palsy, Jacob volunteers to go along with her and help. He loves Charlie. He’ll sit for hours next to Charlie’s wheelchair and play video games, or watch movies with him. He embodies compassion for other people, especially those who also have special needs. Imagine that! A child with special needs loving and caring for another child who has special needs.

Equality matters.

For as kind-hearted as my son is, I’ve watched him deal with his fair-share of mistreatment for being different than other kids. Often, the inequality that still exists more than ever in our world, sticks out like a sore thumb when you’re parenting a child with special needs. I’ve watched the way other kids react to him on the playground when he’s a little too loud or over-excited about playing with them. I’ve watched other boys push him away and tell him to go play somewhere else, because he’s different from them.

I am reminded how much equality matters every time my heart breaks over the way my son is treated. You have an entirely different perspective on this when you or someone you love deeply is the victim of it. My son is a beautiful human being. It saddens me that there are some in this world that miss that entirely because they’re too busy thinking about themselves first.

We will never live in a world of peace until we begin to see one another as equal participants in this great thing we call life.

There’s immeasurable joy in this world when you look closely.

If it’s raining, my son is happy. If it’s sunny, he’s happy. If the week’s been a little too stressful and we haven’t been able to much more than hang around the house, he’s happy. If the extent of our trip away from home consists of a grocery store run, or a prescription drop off at the pharmacy, he’s happy to go along and just be with us. Joy is not about being happy all the time. It’s about choosing to be content with life, regardless of the circumstances. It’s a consistent belief that you’re okay, even when you don’t feel okay. Sometimes that’s happiness, sometimes it’s not. Sometimes that’s just a peace in knowing that you’re alive, you still have a heartbeat, you’re not dead!

If there were a poster child for joy, it would be my son. Even at 7 years old, he lives with a contentment that I sometimes envy. I pray he never loses that.

It’s pretty safe to say that, in many regards, my son has become the teacher. I’ve learned so much from him. Mostly, how to see the world around me. When others see dark, and hopeless circumstances, my son sees light. He sees hope.

Question: Are you raising a child who has a unique perspective on the world? Share your story with us in the comment section below. You can leave a comment by clicking here.

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  • Lori Moffit

    This was my son too, when he was young enough not to realize he was “different.” Unfortunately, as kids get a bit older, they are not as nice, when another kid their same age acts so differently, & so much younger than his actual age. This has happened even in a couple of churches we attended in the past, the one place he should’ve felt safe from this. 🙁 He’s 23 now, and it’s hard for him that this year he finally had to leave the teen class, where most of his friends are, but he’s getting used to his new class.

    • Hey Lori, thanks so much for sharing. This can be such a tough road to travel. We fear the way kids will treat him the older he becomes. All we can do is trust and pray it doesn’t happen though.

      • Lori Moffit

        We have homeschooled since he left kindergarten, and as each of our others came to us, they began homeschooling as well. I now review educational products and curriculum on my blog for a major homeschool magazine, which has helped us to continue with homeschooling. I believe strongly that the biggest reason my son’s have not wound up in the juvenile justice system is because we’ve taken them out of public school where with their disabilities, they would follow along with the worst elements. We’ve seen it. 🙁

        • Allisonm

          We schooled at home for a few years, but upon moving to a new state with much better schools, we sent our kids back to public school. My 7th grader goes to school for nine hours per week under his IEP. He is in one small group class and has an hour working with his ED teacher one-on-one. Middle school is overwhelming and my son with developmental trauma and in-utero substance exposure acts out his distress in ways that have required police assistance. But he can be successful at school for a couple of hours a day and actually learn things while there. He is much better regulated and is able to learn and use coping skills, now that he isn’t stressed out of his mind at school. He can be the great kid he is inside.

  • J.Michelsen

    You could be talking about my daughter. Her joy is just incredible to witness. I struggle with guilt because I get bogged down by the day to day tasks that accompany living with her, and her brother, so I miss the many things about her that are so sweet, so good. I am preoccupied with the damage to the paint in her room(for various reasons) or the fact that I have to keep things locked up in spite of her age, to keep her safe. Or the constant struggle between she and her brother to get along. Yet anyone who has met her outside of our home will say “She is amazing! She is so joyful! She is so loving! She is so good with other kids who need help, or just someone to be their friend.” She is all of those things. She is. I see it. And, I am learning to slow down and weigh the value of that against these other things and realize it is far more valuable and long lasting than any of the things that are wearing me down.