When Special Education Lives in Your Home

Mary McLaughlin
Special Education Teacher

I have never had a predilection toward Math. The very thought of the subject gives me hives. I get physically ill just walking into a bank or chatting on the phone with my accountant, which can be problematic because she was my dear friend long before she became my accountant. She has learned to not "speak Math" to me, but to put it all into Mary Terms.

By no means am I discounting my intellect. Quite the opposite, in fact; I know what I know and I know what I don't know; it's all good with me. My gifts lie far away from the world of protractors, rulers, calculators, and graph paper.

Flashback to September 1980; get the imagery in your head. The "Farrah Flip" was the hairstyle de rigueur, Jordache jeans were a must but nothing got between Brooke Shields and her Calvins. Trans Ams ran the roads, punk rockers ruled the radio, Izod ruled the suburban high school hallways, and Bonnie Bell Lip Smackers were in most females' purses.

It's the first day of Tenth Grade. Sophomores were the lowest grade level in my hometown high school and we were proud and excited Wayne Memorial High School Zebras (Yes. Our mascot was a zebra…and we're oddly proud of that fact.). By the time I got to my very first high school Math class, I'd been through a couple of classes in which I knew I'd do okay. A class full of new faces from three other junior high schools, my mind wandered as I listened to a very intimidating man explain our Algebra class's first day's lesson. I listened. I took notes. I tried to pry open the part of my brain where the ability to understand this stuff was sure to be found.

Nothing. It just wasn't there.

As I contemplated what to do while fight-or-flight hormones pulsed through my body, I decided to turn around and see if any of the new people would be able to offer a clue, some sense of surety that I could do this, that I could grasp the material.

Cue the music: let's go with Desperado. Turn on the fan so his wavy brown feathered locks could gently blow in the breeze. I turned around and saw this very cute boy with dazzling blue eyes and said, "Hi. My name's Mary. Do you get this?" He smiled at me and said, "Hi. My name's Jack. Yes, I do. Do you need help?" For the next three years, Jack supported my Math acquisition efforts, and he was promptly placed in the Friend Zone.

Over the next 30 years, we went our separate ways through marriages, divorces, raising children, college, and Jack serving our country in the United States Military for a decade. We checked in with mutual friends about each other, but apart from very casual connection, we really didn't see each other at all since the days soon after graduating high school.

When I decided to cast my net for teaching positions in the south, I did so by letting friends know of my plan. I would only apply to schools in states where I knew at least one person so I wasn't alone without a connection already in place. When my decision to move to Arkansas was confirmed, Jack was my friend in the state.

After settling in to my new home and new job, Jack shared his heart with me, telling me of a time way back during the first Reagan administration when he had missed his chance to invite me on a date and so he invited me on a date 35 years later; from there, a relationship grew.

In total, we have a combined six children and nine grandchildren. The youngest of Jack's children has Down's Syndrome.

As our relationship has deepened, learning to live a life inclusively has been one of, no kidding, ups and-pardon the pun-downs.

In a time in our society when more people who are dating or in long time relationships have children, especially we "Not Thirty Somethings," there is a probably the partner comes with a kid or two or more…and there will be those children who are part of that number who have special needs.

Are you ready for that? There are, no lie, challenges.

Are the challenges worth it to you? Do you love your potential partner so much that you can also find a place in your heart for the children, and an even bigger place in your heart for the children with special needs?

What is a good thought onto which you should cling as you embark into the world of dating a parent of a special needs child?

BONDING WITH THIS CHILD WILL TAKE TIME. If I offer any advice at all, that's the single best piece I have to offer.

There are times when it is so much fun to hang with a person whose one goal in life is to have fun. The simple pleasures of life which we "neuro-typicals" take for granted are savored by people with Down's. They see things very simply and take them at face-value. What a happy way to live!

There are times when it is sooooo annoying to hang with a person whose one goal in life is to have fun…there are chores to be done, appointments to keep, errands to run, and this person is taking their Sweet Mary time meandering through whatever store or business and you've got a schedule to keep.

Another lesson I've learned is that this person has a very keen sense for reading the energy of others. If he senses joy, he exudes joy, too. If he senses hostility, he starts to tense up and feel anxious. If he senses something dark in a person, he shies away from them.

There are times when the child will try to manipulate you. This is a "typical" behavior seen with a variety of disabilities and noted in literature from various sources. Children with Asperger's (http://www.myaspergerschild.com/2010/10/aspergers-children-and-manipulative.html), Down's Syndrome (http://www.ndss.org/Resources/Wellness/Managing-Behavior/), Reactive Attachment Disorder (http://www.reactiveattachment-disorder.com/), and other disabilities proffer their own unique sets of and versions of behavior challenges; manipulating a situation is one worth gathering insight on and strategies for managing.

What's the bottom line? Do you have enough love to go around? Are you deeply enough committed to the one you love to be all in? If the biological parent knows you're not able to hack it, chances are rock-solid they don't want you to. They GET IT. They KNOW the challenges. That's probably why they were slow to invite you into their heart and family in the first place. Be sure of your level of commitment and remember, no one is perfect. The biological parent will be the first one to tell you that and to admit to succumbing to the obstacles frequently-probably even daily-placed in their stead. Step back for a minute, though, and consider the fact that we're humans. While you're feeling incredibly frustrated about this neuro-atypical kid giving you a run for you mental money, I come back to what my grandma said: "One finger is pointing out but three are pointing back at you." Ugh. I realize that once again, she is right. This child's needs are their needs. You have your own special set, all packaged up and wrapped in a tidy wrapping with a big bow on top. What's in your box of needs? Are you a Perfectionist? Afraid of heights? Got some road rage issues you're dealing with? Are you awful with money? Have rotten credit? I'm not trying to make anyone feel badly about themselves; rather, I'm pointing out that we ALL HAVE STUFF. Our special needs families have one version of "stuff." Neuro-typical people have their own version of "stuff." I love the new television show Speechless (ABC Television Network and ABC.com features full episodes) because it show exactly the point I'm trying to make. They KNOW they're not perfect. The family featured on this great show about raising a family with 3 children, one of whom has CP and is non-verbal acknowledges the fact that being friends with their brood isn't for wimps. In their imperfect way of doing life, they work together in symbiosis to DO life together.

I would do anything for the one who loves me and he knows that; from the very beginning, he was clear that he and his son were a package deal: love one, love the other. In my bouts of frustration and fits of snappish grumpiness, it is heartening to look over at the young one who sits and stares at me with a goofy grin on his face and says, "It's alright, Mary." I mean, come ON…that's what life is all about: being loved.

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