Recently two of the students in a classroom I’ve been visiting asked if I could take a few minutes to talk privately. They were eager to share an experience with me and preferred my undivided attention.
We sat in the hallway as they described an incident that took place on the playground. A student was being bullied. The taunts included comments about her “special needs.” Most stood by—doing nothing.
But these two young girls stepped up, calmly telling the bully to stop, and publicly offering their friendship to the victim. Some of their peers chose to make fun of them for that, saying, “Why would you be friends with her?”
As the girls spoke to me, I wasn’t sure what they'd say next. I hoped they would tell me they did the right thing, but I know how much peer pressure can impact a child’s choices. That’s why they need our guidance.
I’m happy to say I wasn’t disappointed. Not only did they respond by reaffirming their friendship with the young girl, they reported the incident to a monitor. They took the steps we discussed in our workshops and I could see the satisfaction in their eyes. They were leading by example.
The experience helped build their character, filled them with confidence and compassion, and also provided them with a new friend.
Many parents of children with special needs approach me to share these kinds of struggles—things like schoolyard ridicule, exclusion from birthday parties, and being ignored. It’s hard enough helping our children rise to their challenges, whatever they may be, without others singling them out in a negative way or excluding them socially because of issues that are completely beyond their control.
The thing is, having friends with special needs can benefit our children in ways that almost can’t be measured. When I was a kid, my Aunt Eleanor used to invite us to play at her house. My cousin, my sister and I were close to the same age and had a pretty good time together. When we’d arrive, my aunt would get on the phone and invite a boy named Ronnie over. He lived in the neighborhood and had many special needs. It was understood that we’d all play together and that was that.
At first, the three of us didn’t really know what to expect, and we were annoyed with Aunt Eleanor for putting us in that position. But she made it clear that there was no alternative, and eventually Ronnie just seemed to be a part of the group. We got used to his “needs,” and began to accommodate them without much thought.
I am so grateful to both my aunt and Ronnie for teaching me that “normal” is all relative, and giving me a more accurate perspective of the world. If that relationship had not been encouraged, it would have been my loss.
Because of that lesson, I have always asked my kids to reach out to other children based on common interests and character, and to look beyond labels. Their friends have included a wide variety of children with everything from allergies to autism. They all adjust accordingly, work together within each others boundaries, and have a good time.
When they grow up, these social skills will be invaluable.
Honestly, don’t we all have special needs? I have a tendency to need complete quiet—and a calculator—when balancing my checkbook. My husband needs constant reminders to stop working, sit down, and relax, while I need a push to get up and do something. My kids need extra patience when it comes to waking up in the morning or focusing on homework, and most of my friends need at least one sip of coffee before they can form a sentence.
No matter what your needs are, being surrounded by people who understand and accept you is something each and every one of us deserves. It’s the one “special need” that we all have in common.
Taryn Grimes-Herbert is the author of the I've Got interactive book series for children. Calling upon her professional acting experience on Broadway, film and television, she is a public speaker and takes her books and workshops into classrooms hoping to help kids build character, develop empathy and learn to communicate respectfully through creative dramatics activities. For more information, visit http://www.ivegotbooks.net.