Politely Ignored

When I was little I was taught to have manners. To be kind. “If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all!” …and NOT to stare!

So I thought I was a pretty good kid. I never stared at the kids (or adults for that matter) with special needs. Not at school. Not at the store. Not at church when no one was looking. Never — I never talked to them either.

I can’t say I remember anyone with special needs in my school days. I have faint recollections, but then they vanish. Who were these kids? Did anyone notice they were more than just their special needs? What’s worse: to be stared at or be completely invisible?

As a mother now of a child with special needs, these thoughts run through my mind often. Why didn’t I try to know these kids? Was I scared of embarrassing them…or myself? Was I just scared of not knowing what to say? Why wouldn’t a kid with special needs still be just a kid? Why wouldn’t I just know they watch cartoons and eat candy and have parents who adore them, and brothers and sisters who play with them, a puppy who licks their face? But I didn’t. I didn’t let myself think that far. I just minded my manners and my own business. Did the other kids know better than I did? I always thought of myself as a good kid. But looking back…I’m not so sure.

Now I’m the mother, and I can’t help but think back to those kids and their mothers. Were they scared to send their kid to a school with potential cruelty? Did they desperately want their child to laugh and make friends and enjoy their day learning? Did they worry all day at not being there to explain to their child why some people act the way they do? How did they deal with the fear, knowing their child would probably be hurt…or ignored in someway that day?

I can’t say I have it figured out. I was like most kids, not hurtful on purpose. But maybe I kept quiet when I saw others purposfully hurting someones feelings. Or was I one of those mean kids? Sadly, I just don’t remember. I hope not.

So, I guess that’s why I have more tolerance than most when confronted with ignorance about my son now, or the topic of special needs in general. No one is perfect. Most people are kind. Most pretend not to notice our quirky son. And most people just don’t understand or know what to say. As he gets older, I feel I have to explain his actions more often. Occasionally someone does say something insensitive, but usually it’s because they are trying to reach out. And that’s good. I know that one only knows what life has allowed them to experience thus far, and we might be that turn in the road for them. I also know that some people just don’t care to be bothered and won’t allow themselves to feel what life for someone other than themselves is like. There are hateful people out there. But they will pass in and straight out of our lives. Because frankly, “ain’t nobody got time for that”. The world is full of all kinds of people. I can’t change that. What I can change is the way I live my life.

I have learned first hand how powerful an exchanged look is. A smile. It’s so simple. In my life when I see someone out in the world who is special in ways I don’t understand, or I see their mother or father so lovingly focused on their care and also guarded in their expression to the outside world… I know now. I know there is nothing that needs to be said. No apology. No pity. I just simply smile and nod a look of “you’re here, I see you here,” “I admire your strength in a life I don’t understand”, “your child looks happy and loved”. So many things can be shared in one genuine look and smile. And it just boils down to being seen. Accepted. Not ignored. And that’s enough. It’s everything.

So for my family, my friends, my community: I will invite them in to my world. I will answer questions and share my son and his struggles and triumphs. Not because it’s easy, but because then he will be real to them. He will be seen. And maybe they will even like what they see. Hopefully they will share about my great kid to their children. And maybe their children will go to school the next day and think to look and smile at a kid from the specials class. Maybe one day they’ll make an unexpected friend. Maybe it’ll be my Simon. They’d be lucky if it were.

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Suzy Higley

Suzy Higley

Wife to my childhood sweetheart. Stay-at-home mom of 3 awesome boys, ages 14, 12, and 5. My youngest is non-verbal and has Autism. Currently starting a community with other Autism Moms called Better Together. More social learning opportunities for our kids on the spectrum are needed...and because I couldn't find them, I'm creating them. I also draw and paint on both paper and walls...and furniture. And speaking of furniture, I have a chronic furniture rearranging condition that I'm seeking help for. Not really...it's my favorite.

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  • Suzy what a beautiful, powerful article. Thank you for sharing that. I hope a lot of people get to read it. I wish EVERYONE could read it. You are an amazing mom.
    We read a book called Out of My Mind with our kids – it’s a middle grade novel about a 10 year old girl with Cerebral Palsy who is unable to talk or move on her own. Everyone treats her like she’s 2 but she’s the smartest (and wittiest) kid in the whole school. It’s an amazing story that makes very real how wrong our perceptions and attitudes toward special needs kids are. That goes for the parents and teachers just as much as the kids. I think every kid should read this book. Actually, every grown-up should read it too.

  • As the aunt of an autistic nephew I definitely have a better feeling than most about what life is like for you, but I won’t pretend I understand completely. Thank you for writing this so that others can better understand. My hope is your courage to speak and other small steps like this to start a conversation mean that the world that your son and my nephew grow up in is at least a little more understanding and accepting as they grow older.

  • Thank you for this Suzy. I’m so touched by your heart in your writing. What an amazing gift of empathy and compassion you have! I hope a lot of people read this too, like the sentiments above 🙂

  • Lou Galindo

    I love how honest and open you are, Suzy. I think you’re a great ambassador for autism, special needs, and acceptance in general. xo!

  • Thank you Lou!

  • Thank you! It’s so nice to hear. I don’t want to be preachy. I just want to share 🙂

  • Thank you Angela!

  • Thank you! I will look for that book. I am still amazed by what I learn about people who can’t speak for whatever disability. We assume language is intelligence, but technology is showing us different. Its a window into hidden brilliance. The awareness of us while we see them as childlike must be unbearable. I can’t imagine. Simon struggles still at almost 5. It’s difficult even for us closest to him to know exactly how he sees the world. We are continuously amazed though. He only shows us how aware he has been when the right opportunity comes. Then we gasp…He doesn’t care to impress us. Lol…

    Thanks again all for the kind words.

  • My son, a kindergartner made my day early one morning while waiting in line for class. He’s a loving rambunctious kid and in line behind him was a very special boy, much like your son I’m sure. My little guy stood in line making silly loud CRAZY faces and noises with his classmate without a care who looked on. One look at the smile on his mom’s face was enough to bring me to tears. Your post reminded me of that moment, I hope to have many more.

  • Shannon Horosewski

    I am a mother to a wonderful son. He has Autism but that is just part of him. Not his biggest trait. I am writting this today because I wanted to make a point. We as parents teach the world how to treat our children. So many special needs parents hide their children. They make the excuse oh they are to loud, oh they will act out, they will be overwhelmed. Till we as parents stop seperating our children from the world it is a waste to ask the world to notice them. I personally take my son to everything! Amusment parks, church, the movies you name it he participates! I have taught him and those around us how to interact. I have set the example. Now we have had to adapt some activities but we never avoid any due to any of his multible diagnosis. And for the record most of my closest friends growing up were special needs to my typical. It just happen that way for me. I saw first hand the being ignored politly as people often assumed I had a condition due to my company. Teach others how you want your child treated and you will teach them what to accept. Funny how that is the same with typical kids to huh!