Community events, school inclusion activities and time spent with family and friends have so many amazing benefits but on my mind today are the connections we make when we spend time with others. Each time I organize an event, I walk away thinking of all the connections that were made. 2 mom’s meeting for the first time and one shares the wonderful experience her son has with Miracle League baseball and now another family signs their daughter up for many years of inclusive baseball. 2 families share resources such as therapeutic horseback riding or a parent meetup. Some of the greatest connections are those between our kiddos/students of all abilities. A student with special needs spends time with a school peer at a community event and now they connect with a chat or even a “hi Luke” or knuckles at school. I believe in my core that inclusion is a win-win in great part because of the connections that are made whether it is in the classroom, at camp, in sports or even better, just in day to day life. I was reminded of this with wonderful time spent with our extended family this past week. My sister, Melissa, was here with my brother-in-law Rob and my nephew and niece, Wil and Madison. Will just turned 18 and he wanted to spend part of his birthday celebration with us in Carlsbad. Woo hoo! The 4 cousins are very close and it’s like no time has passed every time they see each other. The 4 cousins, Wil, Madison and my Luke and Everett will be friends for life. While they live in the Minneapolis area, we see eachother a few times a year. We also had the boys’ Aunt Kelsey (my sister) and Uncle Matt (my brother-in-law) in town. We are a fun group and we all get along!
Wil and Everett play video games over facetime on a fairly regular basis so I get to say hi to Wil when I pop into Everett’s room which is wonderful but the relationship he and Madison have with Luke warms my mom heart in a very special way. Luke has a village. He has a school village, he has a horseback riding and baseball village, he has his people, yes, Kerry and Emily that’s you and he has a family village. When Luke is with his cousins they are 4 kiddos having fun together. They talk to him, laugh with him, play along with his requests to shut the door and cough and they take his hand and bring him along with whatever they are doing. There’s no special day class or general education or stares and lack of communication because people don’t know what to say to him, there is just a connection, a very special, very crucial connection needed for his livelihood. He is having fun and laughing and knows that he is part of them, part of what they are doing and that is the best gift that anyone could ever give my Luke. These are his people. He will need them and I know that they will always be present in his life. They may be in relationships, move, travel the world, work in various fields and though Luke will do those modified versions of those things, they will always be there for him. Our family can rely on that.
Connections. What are they? They are a bond in which both parties feel seen, heard and feel valued. In the 2021 World Happiness report it was found that people who experienced an increase in connectedness with others had greater life satisfaction, more resilience and better mental health. People living with special needs need authentic human connections as much or I’d argue even more than others. Activities, travel, sports or even getting from point A to point B may be limited so how do we feel a human connection on a daily basis? Connections are often treated as secondary to day to day care or an added benefit for people with disabilities rather than the necessity that they are.
I know some parents reading this will say it’s tough for my child to make authentic human connections because he doesn’t look people in the eyes or she is non-verbal or his behaviors are too severe. This is all true. It may be tough but what I’ve discovered is that we do have a community of people who have been exposed to different abilities, who know how to work an AAC device and talk to our children even when they don’t look them in the eyes. They have been exposed to different abilities at home or at school and they are kind and compassionate. These people are the peer buddies that our children need. I’ve seen them hold Luke's hand, ask him to throw a ball, follow his lead and laugh with him. I am amazed at how differently Luke is with his peers. He doesn’t pinch or hit them and when I step back and watch the interaction, it's one of the most natural, beautiful connections I’ve ever seen.
So where do we find these friends and where do we go to make these connections? If your child is school aged, start there. Ask teachers and your principal to help find peer buddies. They know who these students are. The ones who will sit with your child at lunch or swing with them at recess. The ones who will sit next to them and help in class. The ones who say “hi Luke” each morning and ask him what he did over the weekend. Maybe some days it’s just a high 5 but it’s a connection. They are your child’s friend and your child knows and feels that they belong. By the way, have a peer buddy added to your IEP under accommodations.
Talk to other parents who have children with disabilities. Talk to all of them. What is working for their child in school and out. Some of the best human connections I’ve made are with other parents. What clubs or inclusive activities are available in school and in the community? I promise that if you ask enough, you will find resources in your area whether they are some of the most awesome people or organizations you will find them! Does your school have Best Buddies or a similar club? Luke has been part of Best Buddies and the Kindness Club at school where he has made amazing friendships in school that have carried over to meet ups in the community. Does your school have peers that spend time in their classroom? If so, get to know them. You can also ask your teacher or instructional aides about which teachers are inclusive. Luke is not a singer but his choir teacher includes students of all abilities and has made him feel a contributing member of the school choir. He even came to Luke’s IEP meeting, so cool! If you know a teacher like this, you may want to consider that class for your child. I would have never thought of choir for Luke but I promise you he will be back in that class next year clapping his hands doing his happy dance.
I love how the universe works. As I was typing this blog, a package arrived for Luke from his peer advocate, Sam.
It was a sweet baseball hat (Luke is always wearing a hat) with a heartfelt card that brought me tears, happy tears. She congratulated him on his graduation, and loved hanging out with him and becoming his friend. He inspired her to be positive and enjoy the little things in life. Luke has a lot to give, but you have to get to know him to understand these gifts. She included her cell phone number so her and Luke can stay in touch and send updates. And the hat…she knows he needs his hat to keep the sun out of his eyes, and he loves the trash, very meaningful, just like their friendship. This is what I’m talking about. These peers are out there! I challenge you to find them or more of them. One of my favorite quotes about making a decision “All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issue from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance which no man could have dreamed would have come his way.” Reach out to your friends, other parents, teachers, people in the community, students…the list is endless. Find your people.
And back to family. Family is the most wonderful blessing but family can also be incredibly challenging. Although we are blessed with love and acceptance, I know that is not always the case. Maybe there is one family member who is exceptional and has that special relationship with your child. Focus your energy there. It only takes one person for your child to have a human connection and perhaps one that lasts a lifetime. For Luke, nothing that I can buy him, no not even an Ipad, cones close to the joy and fulfillment he gets from his family, friends, people, village…his livelihood.