Being a new parent is full of worries, particularly, I feel, for us mothers. Along with the new life that grows within our womb, it seems we are simultaneously growing worry in our minds. You may worry about whether or not you will be able to successfully breastfeed or how you’ll survive that bemoaned lack of sleep. As your child gets older, the worries change, but I don’t think any of us can say that we will ever fully stop worrying about our kids. It’s hard-wired into us.
Something I did not plan on fretting over is how my daughter would interact with others, if at all. Whether or not my child would have friends just wasn’t a concern that occurred to me. However, I happen to be blessed with an exceedingly special girl with a unique set of challenges. My McLaine is seven-years-old and has an undiagnosed genetic disorder. As a result she has mobility challenges, is non-verbal and possesses many autism-like qualities. She is delightful, loving, and bright, but she’s not incredibly social and has very specific interests which aren’t generally age-appropriate in comparison to her typical peers. And so, I quite often worry that she will be excluded or possibly included, but for the wrong reasons.
What I want for my daughter is real friendship. I want her to have friends who value her for the great qualities she brings to the table. I want her to have friends who think she’s funny and smart and love to be around her for that reason. I want her to have friends who love to see her succeed and help her because of that, not because she needs charity. I do not want my daughter to have “friends” because she’s the token disabled kid or they think she’s cute or like having a fun baby doll to care for. All of those things are infantilizing. McLaine is seven, she’s not a baby and she’s a person with real feelings.
Inclusion is what enables the types of real relationships I envision for my daughter. If she is kept in a separate classroom from her typical peers at all times, how will they ever get to know her? The lack of inclusion of children in the special education program reinforces the stereotypes of “different” and “other,” and that’s damaging on multiple levels.
We are incredibly blessed to have McLaine in a school where inclusion is valued. She attends some classes with her typical peers, and is included in all of the activities that go on in her grade. Recently she participated in the first grade musical as an alligator, and, well, that did some good for this worried mama’s heart. We are equally blessed with an amazing church where McLaine is beloved and befriended by children and adults alike within the children’s ministry. She participates in small group, attends worship and even performed with the worship team during VBS this summer (she adores music and did an awesome job).
In conclusion, I’d love to give some (unsolicited) advice to the parents of my daughter’s typical peers:
Instead of encouraging your child to befriend a special needs child for no real reason other than their disability, encourage them to notice goodness and commonalities in others and to be kind at every opportunity. This allows the friendships to develop naturally. I know how tempting it is to praise your child for playing with a child with special needs, but unfortunately that can send the wrong message. Praising them for what they see as simply a normal interaction with a peer actually points out to your child that my child should be treated differently. Instead, afterward, ask them about their new friend. “I saw you playing with a new friend today! You both really love to swing. Was there anything else you wanted to tell me about your new friend?”
Inclusion matters because all of our children benefit from it! They all deserve rich friendships and to see life through the eyes of someone with a different point of view.