I’ve mentioned before that The Older Boy is mentally challenged. And, although he has many struggles, he is high functioning. There are many things he can do for himself–he can communicate his needs and wants, he can show emotion, and he can develop relationships with others. I have high hopes for him; I want him to be an independent adult. It will be a long road, but I think that’s an obtainable goal.
Because of this, I’ve always walked a fine line in regards to whom he is exposed and what activities he is involved in. One fear is that if he is constantly surrounded by severely handicapped children, he will see himself that way. Once we begin to internally see ourselves in a certain light, that image becomes our identity. If he begins to tell himself that he is “stupid,” he will eventually believe it and never fully reach his true potential. If he thinks he cannot do something on his own, he won’t even try. If he is surrounded by children who can’t speak, his own speech patterns may not ever evolve. I don’t want him to think he’s better than these individuals, I want him to be their friend, to be compassionate towards them, to help them if he can, to love them. But, I want him to see himself as he truly is…a boy who can do great things, but a boy who will have to work 80% harder than everyone else to achieve this.
On the other hand, I have the same fear when he is with “normal” children. Whereas I’m afraid he will come to his own conclusion of being deficient if surrounded by severely handicapped children, I’m afraid others will tell him he’s deficient if he’s surrounded by “normal” children. I’ve seen other children treat him badly, and it cuts me to the core. John Edward is socially awkward. He says inappropriate things at inappropriate times, such as inserting a story about his cat when the other kids are talking about sports. He also obsesses over things, stares at people, and waves to strangers. It is not unusual for me to overhear, “What is wrong with him? Why is that boy staring at me? He’s weird. What are you saying?” or to see a classmate run in the opposite direction when in public. It hurts me. It hurts me that other children avoid him. It hurts me that his friends are only his friends when in private. It hurts me that this is his reality.
Since he does not have a definitive diagnosis, we cannot find a group of individuals like him. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of other children who are mentally handicapped and high functioning, but there’s not an organized group of them. So, I have to choose between the 2 above mentioned social groups. I try to let him be involved with both. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.
We tried letting him play sports when he was younger (he’s ten-years-old now). We put him in tee-ball and soccer when he was five. Both worked out well when he was younger, but by the time he was 8, it was getting too difficult. He didn’t understand the logistics of the games, and the more rules that were added, the more lost he became. His soccer team was the same group of kids he’d always been with, so the kids and adults knew he was “different.” They were always kind to him, and it was rare for me to hear a kid say something ugly. With baseball however, the teams changed from year to year. The kids were ruthless, and they were just taking a cue from their parents. There was one kid who, at age 7, adults were saying he would be in the MLB one day. He was 7!!! It was absolutely ridiculous. But, that’s how seriously the adults took this game. (Yes, I called it a game. Gasp! Blasphemy! You’ll get over it.) The kids on the field were yelling at my precious son, and the adults were making comments under their breath. I’m not a quitter; I think if you sign up for something, you should follow through with the commitment. But, we quit. Without hesitation. Without regret. I was not about to allow my child to be subjected to cruelty.
So, he no longer participated in recreational sports. He missed it; he truly loved to play. It’s one of those parental moments where you do what is best for your child, even if it hurts them. I tried to find some alternative, but there just wasn’t one in our area.
Enter the Special Olympics.
Last year was the first year that The Older Boy was eligible to participate in the Special Olympics. It was a track and field event, and I wasn’t even sure if I wanted him to participate at first. After all, it would be ALL handicapped children. I had never attended a Special Olympics event; I had so many questions. After nights of prayer and countless discussions with The Husband, we decided to let him compete.
It was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.
All of my fears were for naught. Fear is completely useless; when will I learn that? First of all, the kids had been tested by their P.E. teachers at school and were divided by ability. So, John Edward was with kids older than him and younger than him, both physically and mentally. He was with kids who ran around the same speed as him, regardless of other abilities. He was truly among peers.
Secondly, it was a hugely positive experience for the kids. Everyone got a ribbon, regardless of how they placed. There were “Hug Teams” at the finish lines; these were high school kids whose sole responsibility was to cheer on the Olympians. Once the finish line was crossed, these teens would jump to hug the kids. Also, local politicians cheered on the kids, and the Coast Guard was there in support. It was beautiful.
Most importantly, The Older Boy had a blast! He ran the 25m dash…and won! He was awarded his first place ribbon, while standing on the winners’ platform, by a member of the Coast Guard. He beamed like a true winner. I fought tears; I was so proud of him. Not because he won, but just because I’m always proud of him. He amazes me. His smile lasted for weeks, and he wore his ribbon everywhere we went. He would proclaim to all, “Look my ribbon! I won da Special ‘Lympics! Yep, I did.”
The Special Olympics gave my child joy. The Special Olympics gave my child confidence. The Special Olympics gave my child a sense of belonging. I’m eternally grateful for this.
And, as much as the Special Olympics gave my child, it gave me so much more.
What did the Special Olympics give to me? I’ll let you know tomorrow…